A Summer of Agriculture, Simple Living, and Milkmaid Dresses
Amidst the turmoil of 2020, people are turning to a whimsical countryside aesthetic called cottagecore.
A collab piece by Kristin Merrilees and Molly Van Gorp. Our social media accounts are linked at the end of the article.
It’s a picturesque summer morning: buttery light melts through a viridescent landscape accented with the pinks and reds of blooming peonies. Yellow finches chirp as a group of girls dressed in head-to-toe flowing garb and matching headbands indulge in a breakfast spread, complete with freshly picked strawberries, marmalade, homemade croissants, a piping hot herbal tea selection, and a cloth-lined, wicker picnic basket. You might be thinking to yourself, is this something out of a Disney movie — perhaps a piece of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White fanfiction, unearthed from the archives? These were our thoughts exactly after encountering video after video in our TikToks feed depicting scenes like these: lifestyles seemingly extracted from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s (famed Anne of Green Gables author) very imagination. Yet, this turn-of-the-century, pre-industrial country living is more than just a fairytale rendition. It is a rapidly growing fashion and lifestyle aesthetic coined cottagecore.
What is cottagecore? Some key terms and explanations…
According to the Aesthetics Wiki, “Cottagecore (also known under the name Farmcore or Countrycore) is an aesthetic inspired by a romanticised interpretation of western agricultural life. It is centred on ideas around of a more simple life and harmony with nature. Certain themes associated are the survival of the environment, food and caring for people.”
As an aesthetic, cottagecore encapsulates specific colors, attitudes, activities, and lifestyles. However, a big part of it is fashion, which we will discuss first.
Cottagecore fashion revolves around loose, gentle, nature-inspired clothing. Inspiration and imagery include mushrooms, flowers, animals, bread, farms, and cottages. As the Aesthetics Wiki states, “Many cottagecore outfits are impractical for the farming and gardening work that the aesthetic revolves around.” Rather, cottagecore fashions are loosely inspired by these activities — overalls and aprons are some examples.
Some other staples include long, flowy skirts and dresses (often sundresses or milkmaid dresses), as well as long coats and chunky sweaters and turtlenecks. Light, comfortable fabrics such as cotton and linen are common.
Colors include earth tones, like cream, gray, olive, tan, dusty rose, green, and brown, as well as pastels (pink, blue, purple, yellow, etc.) Textures include ruffles, frilly sleeves, and intricate lace detailing, and patterns include paisley, embroidered designs, floral, and gingham.
Hair is often kept long and wavy, or put into braids. Accessories include sun hats, bonnets, simple and dainty jewelry. Shoes include clogs, work boots, flats, and other simple shoes.
Many members of the cottagecore community will also wear unique statement pieces, such as mushroom earrings or T-shirts with nature-inspired designs.
Cottagecore clothing is often vintage or found in small boutiques, such as through Etsy for example. However, here are a few other brands where you might find cottagecore clothing:
- Free People, a bohemian fashion brand
- Linnenaive, for long, simple, flowy dresses
- Olive Clothing, for simple basics in earth tones
Cottagecore makeup is very natural and delicate. Elements include pastels, blush, pink lips, glitter, and gold. Nature-inspired imagery such as flowers and plants, butterflies, and fairies is also common.
Overall, cottagecore fashion is very feminine and women-focused, although men’s clothing does exist. This has to do with the history and rise of the aesthetic as a whole, which we will explain later.
What is the history of cottagecore? How did it rise to popularity?
Undeniably, cottagecore’s rise in popularity can be directly tied and traced to the beginning of the quarantine. Rebecca Jennings of Vox says, “things are bad, and people are anxious about whatever ongoing horrors are metabolizing in geopolitics, the environment, and capitalism.” For many, cottagecore is a reaction to hustle culture and excessive materialism, especially in western society. The world of cottagecore offers an escape from the realities and chaos in the world, an idyllic retreat to a “simpler place” (void of excessive technology and complexities) that requires nothing more than a trip to the backyard. Other trends that echo the pillars of cottagecore, including baking, sustainability, and subscription to ethical, simple lifestyles have also gained traction during the quarantine, fueling its presence in mainstream culture. According to Palmer Haasch in Insider, cottagecore gained traction on Google Trends as early as January, in March its popularity had spread to Tumblr, and TikTok was close to follow suit.
While the cottagecore aesthetic may have been formally curated in January, “The idea of cottagecore is much older than the hashtag. In fact, it’s much older than the internet itself. This impulse to strip back, to return to nature, is one that we’ve seen throughout history,” according to YouTuber Rowan Ellis. She continues that in the 18th century, “French nobles like Marie Antoinette would create purpose-built villages and farms on their land to act as rustic retreats where they could visit to dress as milkmaids and engage in a sort of performance of rustic life.”
In more recent history, criticism of the Industrial Revolution spurred forth movements and philosophies, most notably Transcendentalism, that glorified nature and the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson, along with Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, and early feminist Margaret Fuller brought Transcendentalism to the forefront of post-Industrialized America.
In short, Transcendentalism is a philosophy and subsequent social movement from 1830s New England that preached the merits of complete isolation in nature without the distractions that modern technology fostered, claiming that such isolation was the ultimate incubator for human creativity and productivity. The movement was inspired by its predecessors: romanticism and Platonism. The five pillars of transcendentalism include self-reliance/independence, human connection to nature, free-thinking, rejecting social norms (nonconformity), and confidence. From this list it becomes acutely obvious: the cottagecore attitude is certainly nothing new, especially in the United States.
However, lifestyles urging a return to the more natural world are not limited to the U.S., this century, or even the last two centuries. Such impulses predate even the near past, as seen in ancient Roman culture. Like Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller, the Romans valued spending time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. During the summer months, wealthy Romans would seek a respite from the sewage and grind of Rome by escaping to their villa rusticas (summer homes) nestled on the Italian coast (ie. Pompeii). Villa rusticas had farms and easy access to nature (forests, rivers, and the sea). Strict gender roles were often less heavily enforced and women, especially girls, were permitted outside without a male chaperone and were allowed to act more freely and independently (they could see friends and enjoy the outdoors). Downtime was spent weaving, reading, and writing.
How does cottagecore extend beyond fashion?
In addition to fashion, cottagecore encapsulates many other elements. There’s a specific lifestyle that goes along with it. Cottagecore is very much about “living off the land” and embracing nature.
It involves outdoorsy activities such as gardening, gathering flowers, picnicking, picking apples and berries, and walking and hiking in the countryside. It also involves tech-free hobbies such as knitting, embroidering, crocheting, journaling, and reading and writing poetry.
However, one major part of cottagecore in recent months has been baking. This has happened in conjunction with the rise of “quarantine baking,” ie., people turning to baking to ease stress and stay busy during quarantine. Banana bread, sourdough, and various deserts have been confectionery favorites during this time. This represents a return to simple living, mindfulness, and sustainable consumption, ideas all associated with cottagecore. See the cottagecore baking YouTube playlist below.
Cottagecore has also inspired room and house design. While in typical American culture, big, and often expensive, flashy houses, condos, and penthouses have been aspired to, cottagecore embraces small, cozy cottages in rural areas, away from the busyness of cities.
But even if you don’t live in a picturesque cottage in rural Europe (which is most of us), you can still bring cottagecore to wherever you live. Succulents, flowers, vines, floral patterned wallpaper, gingham tablecloths, white lace comforters, stacks of books, and fairy lights are all things you can put in your living space to give it the cottagecore feel.
Cottagecore interior design is also purposefully rustic and old-fashioned. According to Jayne Dowel in House Beautiful, young people interested in cottagecore can “find inspiration from their parents and grandparents’ houses,” which many have been moving back to during the pandemic. Founder of furniture retailer ufurnish.com Deirdre McGettrick says, “These slightly-dated interiors are helping to inspire their own ideas, giving them something different to share on social media.”
Cottagecore in Pop Culture
There are several relatively older cultural works that embrace the themes of cottagecore. Examples include The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, Anne of Green Gables, The Moomins, The Secret Garden, The Sound of Music, Pride and Prejudice, Peter Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, Little House on the Prairie, Maleficent, Frog and Toad, The Smurfs, and more.
There have also been newer works of media. Some of these are reworks of their older counterparts. One example is Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women (and one of several adaptations throughout the years), based on the novel of the same title by Louisa May Alcott, which explores femininity and gender in post-American Civil War Concord, Massachusetts (incidentally, where many Transcendentalist writers were from).
There’s also Anne with an E, a Netflix series based on the 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Or Emma, a 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel of the same name.
Some are newer works of media, like The Great British Bake Off, an Englan-based competition show between amateur bakers to impress a set of judges. Contestants bake both classic and innovative dishes, and the show has renewed interest in baking across England. It also gained popularity in the U.S. when it was launched on Netflix under the name The Great British Baking Show.
In recent days, however, the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name (based off of the 2007 book of the same name by André Aciman) has become the ultimate cottagecore influence. The film, which has become an important cultural work, focuses on the romance between 17-year-old Elio Perlman and his father’s 24-year-old graduate assistant Oliver in northern Italy during the summer of 1983.
The movie is aesthetically spectacular, an exploration of summer, simple living, and music and art. It’s a romantic portrayal of spending all one’s time outside, living carefree in the summer, without the distractions of technology or the city.
Cottagecore is also found in online games. It’s been a popular theme in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in which people have been designing cottagecore-inspired islands.
According to Sage Negron in CBR.com, “Design patterns that define cottagecore consist of nonlinear pathways decorated with custom designs resembling flower petals or tree stumps, small rivers and waterfalls that curve naturally and avoid sharp angles, as well as large forests filled with cedar saplings and fruit trees.” He continues, “Common items for cottagecore islands include mushroom lamps, wooden fences, log benches, birdhouses, and large flower beds.”
Users can also dress their characters in cottagecore-inspired outfits.
Cottagecore has also been embraced in Minecraft, which like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, enables world-building. On Minecraft, people are building elaborate cottages tucked away in gorgeous rural landscapes, creating skins with strawberry and pink gingham patterns, and collecting books, flowers, and bakery items.
Cottagecore is also increasingly popular in music. Sufjan Stevens’ song “Mystery of Love,” featured in the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack, is an auditory expression of peace, summer, friendship, nature, and love.
The cottagecore-related themes in Taylor Swift’s recently-dropped surprised album folklore are also impossible to ignore. Leaving behind the upbeat tones of her previous pop (and pop-country) albums, folklore is mellow, nostalgic, and dreamlike.
Other artists part of cottagecore include Hozier, The Beatles, John Denver, Fleet Foxes, Of Monsters and Men, The Oh Hellos, girl in red, KALEO, Iron & Wine, The Lumineers, Bon Iver, Rex Orange County, Harry Styles, Clairo, and Wallows.
Finally, cottagecore has inspired the fashions of more traditionally upscale fashion brands. For example, there’s LoveShackFancy, a brand known for its skirts and dresses and often seen in the preppy country clubs of New England. Its take on cottagecore involves peasant tops, sun hats, ruffled layers, roses and floral prints, puffy sleeves, and vibrant pink, purple, yellow, and blue tones. There’s also For Love & Lemons, which is a “Los Angeles fashion brand cultivated the principles of confidence, femininity, and individuality.” It has put a spunky, L.A. twist on cottagecore with pieces such as milkmaid dresses, corsets, and floral skirts.
Celebrities and Cottagecore
The Hadid sisters are leading the pack by documenting their very cottagecore, outdoorsy quarantine life in Pennsylvania over social media. The pair have spent their time baking, picnicking, riding horses, gardening, caring for cows, painting, and even building a tree swing. Bella’s quarantine wardrobe has featured key cottage core pieces like beaded/homemade jewelry and a simple, neutral color palette accented with pops of vintage florals.
Kylie Jenner’s new Holmby Hills home boasts a beautiful tennis court. She has posted multiple tennis-themed photos on her Instagram since the start of quarantine, including a video clip with her older sister, Kendall, featured in Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s pandemic-inspired single “Stuck with You.” An increased enthusiasm in tennis and similar recreational sports like golf and croquet have since followed. Such trend surges occurred in our very community. My (Molly’s) friend on the New Trier (our town’s high school) tennis team informed me that over 90 freshmen tried out for the girls' tennis team, almost triple that of past years.
The Biebers have also embraced recreational, outdoor activities over quarantine. The two were spotted mountain biking and hiking around the Amangiri resort in Utah earlier this summer.
There are many similar aesthetics to cottagecore, some of which we will list below.
- Mori Kei: “forest style,” gets its name from the Japanese street fashion community, involves living in the forest and off the earth
- Grandmacore: “an aesthetic that is based around cottage and stereotypical grandma related things ie. gardening, soft knitted fabric, crocheting, farmland animals, fresh-baked bread”
- Naturecore: “an aesthetic surrounding the theme of animals and other nature-related things (ie. plants, forests, flowers, etc.)”
- Honeycore: “an aesthetic based around the rural production and consumption of goods such as honey, bread, and waffles”
- Warmcore: “related to things that make a person feel warm and fuzzy inside, with a hint of nostalgia”
- Cottagegore: — focuses on darker aspects of nature “including rotten mushroom or plant aesthetics, forest cryptids, spirits or ghosts”
- Hygge: “A Danish word used when acknowledging a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary as cosy, charming, and special”
Controversies and Societal Movements
At a glance, cottagecore may seem like nothing short of an endlessly blooming, butterfly-inhabited utopia. However, even the rosiest of idealisms have their flaws. For starters, many confuse cottagecore with Tradlife, which is a form of traditionalist living, and the related TradWife Movement. “A ‘tradwife’ is a 21st-century woman who embraces traditional and conventional gender roles, which include ‘submitting’ to her husband, not having a full-time job, and staying at home to be a homemaker and raise children.” Tradlife has a strong association with European roots and even white supremacy. The TradWife Movement can be interpreted as a response to modern feminism.
It is important to note that cottagecore, although some aspects of it are similar to tradlife (gardening, baking, being at home in a cottage, embroidery, femininity, vintage things) is NOT the same. It fundamentally lacks the same controllingness and ideology.
In fact, cottagecore is known to break beyond traditional gender boundaries by being welcoming to and accepting of women in the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, it was these women who helped popularize cottagecore and bring it into mainstream culture.
In a video essay titled “why is cottagecore so gay?” Rowan Ellis explains why cottagecore is so popular amongst the queer/wlw (women who love women) community. She explains, “Cottagecore is, at its heart, a form of gentle escapism. For queer and sapphic women, it allows them to imagine a space without homophobia, fear, and judgment that doesn’t feel like a banishment, but instead, a specifically curated paradise. It’s a world of independence, of being able to live happily and peacefully with your partner in a world that isn’t revolving around men.”
Ellis also describes that some queer people who lived in the countryside as children were judged for their identities. She continues that cottagecore allows them to return to these spaces and reimagine them to fit who they are. With no heteronormativity or patriarchy, femininity is seen as powerful. It’s a world without a male gaze, that neither sexualizes nor infantilizes women.
Finally, one other big social criticism surrounding cottagecore is its role in post-colonialism and that it centers mostly around European, white women. As Ellis explains, there are dangerous implications in the notion that “White people move into supposedly pure and untouched land, especially in America with its history of colonial occupation and manifest destiny.” However, many women of color are beginning to embrace the aesthetic.
Additionally, Ellis describes that many are cognizant of the political implications and history of the land they’re living on — indigenous rights, social justice, and effects of the environment on marginalized communities (for example, living in food deserts). At the same time, not everyone is aware of and contributing to tackling these issues, and there is much, much more work that needs to be done.
Beyond the Cottage: Environment & Spirituality
Unlike other fashion-based aesthetics, cottagecore preaches a strong message of environmental stewardship and is a reaction to the hyperconsumption and materialism that is hurting the planet. Cottagecore encourages sustainability, living ethically, ethical farming, gardening, and lowering our carbon footprints. This is especially important in light of the current climate crisis we are facing, which has led many to want to live more consciously and be aware of what they are consuming and their impacts on the planet.
Opinion: Is it here to stay?
We think that cottagecore, although perhaps not in its most extreme form, is here to stay. Elements of the cottagecore aesthetic have become popularized over the past couple of years, and these elements have become hyper-popular, and in many cases, mainstreamed, during the quarantine. Examples include an emphasis on farm-to-table eating (restaurants serving only more naturally-sourced foods, such as Summer House Santa Monica in Chicago) and increased participation in outdoor, recreational activities (hiking, biking, tennis, and going on picnics). While long peasant dresses, headscarves, and milkmaid dresses may become obsolete, we predict that these two elements of cottagecore will stick. Moreover, engagement with nature, baking, clean living, and sustainability can be, and are vitally necessary, for us to create a livable future.
Interestingly, while cottagecore revolves around nature and simple living, in its current form it is constantly being influenced by technology — which can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. As Ellis states, “Because of its place on the internet, cottagecore could just as easily be referred to as #cottagecore. It is so intrinsically tied to the mediums that it runs across, namely Tumblr, TikTok, and Instagram. The nature of these particular online mediums means that your engagement with cottagecore is much more likely to be visual rather than experiential. The full cottagecore experience is only really available to a very limited number of people who have access to a countryside setting, a beautiful cottage, long flowing day dresses.” (And likely, the financial freedom to live in this way).
But online, everyone can participate in cottagecore in some way or another. Sure, this may mean that it isn’t the true “detachment” from busy life that the aesthetic is supposed to entail. But it does provide an escape, the chance to constantly engage with others who want to build a better world, imagine what that might look like, and slowly but surely begin to change our own lives to match.