Escape Into Cottagecore, Calming Ethos for Our Febrile Moment
In the dense thicket of the internet lies a verdant patch of grass where dappled sunbeams peek through the leaves, resting fawns doze about, a troop of woodland mushrooms grows underfoot, and a brook faintly burbles in the distance. Freshly baked scones are just emerging from the oven in a thatch roof country cottage bordering the woods, while linen-scented laundry dries peacefully on a clothesline in the yard.
It could be the beginning of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, before the inevitable darkness seeps in, but rather it’s the backdrop of a budding aesthetic movement called cottagecore, where tropes of rural self-sufficiency converge with dainty décor to create an exceptionally twee distillation of pastoral existence.
“It’s like Animal Crossing but in real life,” Emily Kellum, an 18-year-old from Belmont, Miss., wrote in an email (she’s not able to get phone service in her small town, she said). She was referring to the wholesome video game in which one plays a human living among adorable anthropomorphic creatures like bear cubs and deer.
Take modern escapist fantasies like tiny homes, voluntary simplicity, forest bathing and screen-free childhoods, then place them inside a delicate, moss-filled terrarium, and the result will look a lot like cottagecore.
It’s a Holly Hobbie illustration come to life, consisting of a coterie of young people, mostly in their teens and early 20s, who congregate online to swap bread baking recipes and photos of their foraged mushroom hauls, stare at pictures of farm animals and otherwise partake in an aspirational form of nostalgia that praises the benefits of living a slow life in which nothing much happens at all.
And yet access to the cottagecore universe is only through the very technology most of its adherents would rather eschew.
The ‘Core’ Curriculum
Cottagecore is related to grandmacore, faeriecore, farmcore and goblincore; other nostalgia-ridden aesthetic communities that, paradoxically, thrive on many of the most popular internet platforms of the day. What these cores have in common is a desire to live in a world outside the one currently inhabited. (The suffix “-core,” derived from 1980s hard-core punk music, is now used to delineate a type of genre or category.)
In the cottagecore universe, there are no phones pinging constantly with updates, no urgent work emails, no evenings spent responding to the onerous demands of a tyrannical boss. In fact, there is no labor beyond domestic, and workaday tasks are completed with a gauzy sense of fulfillment.
Each pie appears to emerge effortlessly from the oven with immaculate golden brown lattice crust. An obvious backlash to the hustle culture embodied by Fiverr ads, cottagecore attempts to assuage burnout with a languid enjoyment of life’s mundane tasks.
Ms. Kellum discovered cottagecore after graduating high school in 2019, when she wasn’t quite sure which direction her life would take. “The concept of living a simple, slow life made me happy,” she said. “It helped me remember that living in constant stress just to keep up didn’t have to be my default state.”
While bona fide prairie dresses had a moment circa 2018 thanks to designers of floaty, filmy frocks like Batsheva, Doen and the Vampire’s Wife, cottagecore embraces the analog existence these fashions merely imply. But unlike reactionary movements like “trad wives” — essentially right-wing mommy bloggers who advocate a return to regressive gender roles — cottagecore offers a vision of domestic bliss without servitude in the traditional binary framework.
Some cottagecore participants are self-identified lesbians outspoken in their support for trans rights. Nancee Craft (her real name), a 19-year-old from South Salem, Ohio, runs the Instagram account @cottagecore_faerie, which proclaims in the bio, “the fae says trans rights.”
“It’s extremely important to welcome people into this community,” she said. “Queer people are also so heavily objectified and sexualized in media, and this is something where we can just be ourselves.”
After nearly a decade of interior design dominated by whitewashed walls, monstera plants and bland midcentury reproduction furniture (Kyle Chayka, a cultural critic, coined the term AirSpace to describe this aesthetic in 2016), perhaps the yen for minimalism is finally waning and a desire for something wilder and more pastoral is beginning to take root.
“People want to be closer to nature,” said Kai Chow, a creative director at the Doneger Group, a design consulting agency in New York City. “The biggest trend in interior design is bringing the outdoors indoors.”
Architectural Digest has named something it calls Vintage Maximalism, characterized by “lots of color, warmth, antiques and eclectic touches,” a top design trend for 2020. And, a cohort of “grandmillennials” who gravitate toward chintzy wallpaper and lace curtains are currently enjoying a moment.
But if cottagecore’s dainty, precious visuals offer a corrective to the blank canvas of AirSpace, its preponderance of cabbage roses and doilies still falls prey to the same fallacy of minimalism: that by exerting control over one’s environment and making it appear perfect, one can regain control over one’s life.
“We look all around ourselves for instructions on how to live only to be confronted with the basic unknowability of the world,” Mr. Chayka writes in his new book, “The Longing for Less.” “And so we turn to some new mode of control, such as minimalism, only to be infected with the suspicion that it, too, is unreal, a map to no territory.”
Both minimalism and cottagecore are wholly unrealistic depictions of life: so filtered by perfection that they’re not possible to reproduce in real life. (Relatedly, other critics of cottagecore resist its nostalgia, based on colonialism’s original, and continuing, sins.) The only way to find satisfaction in life is to abandon all idealized depictions and acknowledge that messy humanity will always find a way to seep in.
Sarah Cavar, 21, a senior majoring in critical social thought at Mount Holyoke College, was drawn to the imaginary cottagecore lifestyle, following more than 600 farm animal-themed accounts on Instagram, until a reality check came in a visit to an actual farm.
Mx. Cavar, who is nonbinary, became disillusioned by the proliferation of bugs, dung and the mortifying experience of having a goat spread its excrement “not only into the ridges on the bottom of my Birkenstocks,” as they wrote in a blog post called “Et Tu, Cottagecore?” “but also onto my thighs and the groin area of my shorts.”
Frolic on TikTok
Though cottagecore has existed in some iteration since 2017 (or arguably 1817), a TikTok video posted by a user named SoraBlu that featured a series of brief moments from her enviable bucolic rural existence brought cottagecore to wider attention in December 2019. There was a bowl of speckled brown eggs, footage of gentle fawns frolicking in a forest — all set to a swelling, cinematic score.
SoraBlu splits her time between a canvas bell tent and a 24-foot R.V. on five acres in Long Beach Peninsula, Wash., and has become an unwitting cottagecore idol thanks to TikTok dispatches from her seemingly charmed existence in the woods. (When Ms. Blu posted her cottagecore check video, there were only four videos using the same audio; now there are almost 100.) “I get multiple messages and emails from young women, almost daily,” she said. “And the most popular question is: how?”
While cottagecore could easily be mistaken for an escapist fantasy, its proponents insist it is a form of self-care. Ms. Craft said her interest in cottagecore stems from a desire to self-soothe. “It’s relieving to come home from a hard day and look at these nice pictures of things that you may not have, that you may never have. It gives you a sense of belongingness.”
Betsy Hinze, 28, is an artist and writer behind the blog The Wondersmith, who creates enchanted recipes for moss-covered cakes and savory pies that resemble British folklore’s the Green Man. “I spent a lot of time in my early 20s looking for magic, and then I had this epiphany where I was like, I can just make it,” she said. “I try to capture these moments spent in nature that feel really wholesome and soothing and welcoming to me.”
Ms. Hinze suffers from a chronic illness, which makes holding down a regular job impossible. She supports herself by selling barnacle-themed ceramics, and also earn money through Patreon, where monthly donations from fans help cover the expenses of “wonder based events,” like hosting foraged dinner parties to strangers who stumble across an invitation in the woods.
Phoenix Tweedy, who is 21 and from Forest Grove, Ore., discovered cottagecore five years after cowering under her desk during morning period while an active shooter killed one of her classmates at Reynolds High School in nearby Troutdale.
Traumatized by the incident, which took place in 2014, Ms. Tweedy dropped out of high school and never returned. “I’ve tried so many different therapies, medications and treatment plans, but when I found cottagecore it just kind of clicked,” she said. “Instead of sleeping all day, I could go try to bake something, or go for a walk and look at flowers.”
Things that do not exist in the cottagecore universe: frostbite, jobs and toxic masculinity. The rise of #MeToo — and, now, the inability of female candidates to get traction in the presidential race — has again stoked up buried rage for many women, and cottagecore offers a vision of the world where men are not consciously excluded; they are simply an afterthought. “Cottagecore is all about finally feeling comfortable and at peace, even if that peace is fake,” Mx. Cavar said.
A sense of sunny optimism pervades. Though cottagecore can appear cloyingly perfect on the surface, Ms. Tweedy insists, “There’s not a lot of stuff you can do to make mistakes. I mean, it’s just going out in the woods and finding mushrooms or berries or sitting down and reading a book outside.”