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Lithium Cottagecore, sans cottage: the real ethos behind a blooming subculture

Sep. 2, 2020
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It’s a fine summer evening. The pastures are saturated with lupine and aster, lending their sweetness to the breeze that sweeps in from the open window, ruffling the gauzy curtains. “Strawberry Blonde” by Mitski plays softly in the background, punctuated by the bleats of an infant goat. You’re living the cottagecore dream. Well, sort of. 

According to its official Wikipedia page, cottagecore stems from online movements such as farmcore and faeriecore. Unlike its supposed predecessors, however, the cottagecore aesthetic has shed its niche status and found platforms all the way from TikTok to national newspapers. TikTok was where cottagecore originally found its footing; as of August 1st, #cottagecore has amassed 3 billion views, while the Instagram hashtag has almost half a million posts. One sunny, wicker-heavy feed curated by @cottageblossoms boasts over 11,000 followers despite making its debut just this April. Even Taylor Swift’s latest album cashes in on the popularity of the aesthetic. 

So does a recent article by The New York Times. “Escape Into Cottagecore, Calming Ethos for Our Febrile Moment” relies on imagery that evokes more of a Tolkien novel than a newspiece: “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.” This kind of description continues throughout the article, unpinning the idea that cottagecore is a strictly visual subculture. Although cottagecore is aesthetically centered, its importance lies in its underlying values. Cottagecore’s aesthetic stereotypes may be based in truth, but it’s reductionist—not to mention condescending—to categorize it as merely cute, a word used to dismiss the interests of young girls and women. Granted, gingham and ducklings are very cute, but cottagecore is a nuanced subculture that deserves to be explored past the surface of prairie dresses and fluffy animals. 

Even so, the biggest problem with The New York Times’ article is not the language; it’s the conflation of cottagecore with inaccessibility. One contradiction the author brings up: “Access to the cottagecore universe is only through the very technology most of its adherents would rather eschew.” According to cottagecore creators, however, this contradiction doesn’t actually exist. For Rowan Ellis, a creator who posts YouTube video essaysabout pop culture and activism as well as TikToks like “Cottagecore Lesbian Harvests Gooseberries,” social media and cottagecore go hand in hand. She says that the TikTok algorithm works with hashtags to make it easy to find specific content, adding that she started tagging her videos to target the content to users she thought would enjoy it the most. 

Samantha Raskin, the mastermind behind the TikTok account @sincerelysamanthalee and a proponent of cottagecore fashion, thinks that TikTok is essential to spreading the fantasy and joy of the subculture as well as establishing the community that is vital to its survival: “While it seems solitary, it’s also sending recipes and sending letters. It’s so interactive.” 

The Times draws another line in the sand—or potting soil, rather—when it says, “While cottagecore could easily be mistaken for an escapist fantasy, its proponents insist it is a form of self-care.” Why not both? Making a statement that suggests the mutual exclusivity of self-care and escapism imposes another geminate choice on an aesthetic that, at its carefully tended root, seeks to escape the restrictions of the gender binary. Escapism itself is a form of self-care. Obviously, fleeing your responsibilities isn’t the best move, but making space for yourself in the midst of a fast-moving world isn’t something to be ashamed of. 

And, as Samantha points out, the escapism associated with cottagecore is an avenue for marginalized groups to make that space. The Times article’s ameliorating grace is its inclusion of why different people are drawn to cottagecore. Betsy Hinze, who struggles with a chronic illness that makes employment difficult, creates beautiful, woodsy pastries. Phoenix Tweedy found a reprieve from the trauma of a school shooting. 

Many members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially those who identify as lesbian or WLW, have found comfort in cottagecore. For Samantha, it acts as a reclamation of an identity that is so often co-opted for the pleasure of outsiders: “Personally, I’m drawn to cottagecore because so much of the LGBTQ community is hypersexualized—I love that cottagecore is so wholesome and sweet.” Ellis adds that the cottagecore aesthetic already holds a place in mainstream media with shows like Anne of Green Gables. However, they still lack queer representation. “None of them, even though they are aesthetically cottagecore, have the same relationship to sexuality and sapphic love that actual cottagecore people do. It’s creating your own version of this fantasy that is more inclusive, carving out a place for yourself within what has been a very traditional space,” she says. 

As with any subculture, cottagecore comes with a desire to unyoke from the ideas of the parent culture, to rage against the machine, however flowery that raging may seem. On the surface, cottagecore has similarities to the lesbian separatist movements of the 1960s: sapphic love in rural settings, self-sustainability, and separation from institutions that operate to fuel male privilege. Unlike lesbian separatist movements, however, cottagecore isn’t an explicitly political movement; it’s an aesthetic underpinned by politics. This, coupled with its recognizable visual profile, make it more aligned with punk and hippie movements. 

While fully believing in cottagecore’s social justice elements, neither Raskin nor Ellis explicitly subscribes to cottagecore. Raskin describes her style as “pastel 1950s cottagecore” while Ellis feels as though she doesn’t have a fixed aesthetic. Realism and strict adherence aren’t tenets of cottagecore; very few people have the means or discipline to adhere to it strictly. Both women live in small city apartments. Like them, Ellis says that many young people who love cottagecore are only able to incorporate small bits of it into their busy, urban lives. “It’s a way to experience and project a version of this lifestyle online to feel like I can trickle some of that down into my everyday life, a way in which I can create some comfort or calm, or sustainability within the world that is feasible for me to live in.” 

One common misconception is that cottagecore enthusiasts want to live in a different time period, that the desire for a slow, simple, and aesthetically classic life translates into a disdain for the present. This isn’t necessarily true. “You can enjoy social media, TikTok, and all the wonderful things that we have in this era and still enjoy the nice, comforting things that we liked from past eras,” Raskin explains, “We don’t actually live in the past.”

While cottagecore has commonalities, it doesn’t really have rules. As Ellis states, “No one is the gatekeeper saying, ‘I created cottagecore. This is what it is. Here’s our manifesto.’” Cottagecore, sans cottage, is very much an open aesthetic. “What’s really interesting with cottagecore is that you have different people who will see the aesthetic of a cottage in the woods as good for different reasons. You’ve got young people who are super political and anticapitalist and having self-sustaining space outside of capitalism, even if that’s just a fantasy; that’s what draws them to cottagecore. Then you have people who are into eradicating climate change, so a sustainable space in which they don’t have to be part of mass produce farming is why they’re drawn over to this side,” Ellis continues, “You can have the same outward aesthetic or interests and then completely spiral off into different viewpoints or different ways of looking at that same imagery.”

So, what is necessary for a cohesive and thriving cottagecore community? Raskin says safety. Cottagecore as it stands isn’t a perfect refuge. Unfortunately, the open-endedness of the subculture leaves room for more insidious ideologies to take hold. Some Tradwives, members of another digital subculture that glorifies housewifery and a wife’s submission to her husband, subscribe to a similar visual landscape as progressive cottagecore creators. American cottagecore has also been critiqued as romanticizing colonialism and farm labor without recognizing the suffering those structures continue to cause. 

Raskin admits that the discourse around colonialism and cottagecore has prompted her to reevaluate her identity as a cottagecore creator. Following the maxim in her Instagram bio—“vintage style, not vintage values”—she expresses that creators must be “hyperconscious” of their content in order to avoid perpetuating outdated and harmful rhetoric. 

Ellis, who is based in the UK, articulates a difference between British and American cottagecore: “In England, cottages in the countryside have a very different vibe to the American experience which is tied with stolen land, even if that’s not explicitly your intention. In the UK and other European countries, you have these ready-to-go cottages; that’s a life that people are actually living right now.” 

The future of cottagecore lies in the hands of its creators, Gen Z. As quarantine trudges along, TikTok runs the risk of being banned by the president, and reinvigorated conversations about colonialism, anti-Blackness, and queer rights come to the forefront, it’s up to those who pioneered cottagecore to push for its continued accountability and inclusivity. Ellis and Raskin, at least, think there’s a better future for cottagecore. “Focusing on self-care and little joys, instead of farm work and things like that—I think that’s where cottagecore is going,” says Raskin. Ellis adds, “There is no reason why the concept of a self-sufficient, sapphic love doesn’t look like other types of cultures or homes that aren’t cottages. What I’d really love to see is cottagecore taking a look and saying, ‘Okay, what are we, what do we actually value about this?’ It’s not the cottage itself, or the English garden. You can have all of the things that are important emotionally from cottagecore without ascribing to an old-fashioned Western viewpoint.”