Nostalgic Arcadia: Cottagecore and its Origins
by Madeline Defilippis | 14 September 2021
Image: @iridessence on Instagram
After the last two years, it’s pretty clear why people need an escape from the everyday. We’ve been stuck inside, banned from seeing our closest friends and family, had to put our lives on hold. During the worldwide lockdowns, people have learnt how to make bread, knit, cook, and sought out other creative outlets that they could do from home. This is the basis for cottagecore: a self-sustaining approach to life through a nostalgic lens, a yearning for the past.
But here’s the issue: when was the period during which cottagecore was meant to have happened? When were women allowed to live alone, dress in $500 strawberry dresses, not work, grow plants and make tiktoks about it? Like a lot of other things on the internet, cottagecore finds it origins in a mélange of desires. It’s only natural to look back at simpler times as humans: the Enlightenment was obsessed with the ancient Greeks, always turning to them for examples of proper forms of education, behaviour, and civil society. The Pre-Raphaelites expressed their desire for a romantic vision of society, in spite of Victorian utilitarianism, through medieval and early Renaissance visual metaphors.
Historically, Nicolas Poussin’s arcadian landscapes represent a similarly imagined past. Poussin used the visual metaphor of arcadia to allude to a ‘golden-age’, one before the invention of civilisation by man ended the idyllic way of life. It is understandable, then, in an age where it is assumed that at some level the pandemic was worsened by humans and their refusal to halt their everyday lives, that people would seek a Narnia-like escape through their door out into nature.
Escapism, however, is not news. The difference between good old-fashioned escapist tendencies and cottagecore, however, is that cottagecore has developed into a lifestyle that encompasses the existing parts of our lives. Cottagecore enthusiasts wear makeup; they dress in flouncy dresses; they live in English cottages. But, they also play Animal Crossing and listen to folklore and evermore by Taylor Swift. Their knitting needles are delivered by Amazon Prime and their baking ingredients are delivered by people who make minimum wage. It’s sort of a non-stop exercise in slow-living and self-care, with a healthy dose of romanticism and dress-up. This is quite the absurdist notion, that one can relinquish their capitalist conveniences –it does not eliminate the fact that cottagecore is untenable without contemporary applications such as Instagram, and services such as one-day delivery.
As I mentioned before, cottagecore is nostalgic living for the contemporary person. It has grown in popularity in the lesbian community on TikTok and there is an account on Instagram called @cottagecoreblackfolks dedicated to envisaging people of colour in what would otherwise be a white dream of the past. For women and femme-presenting people, it’s a chance to avoid the objectification and sexualisation of our bodies in favour of celebration. In the absence of the male gaze, people are able to dress comfortably and in clothes that make them genuinely happy. Cottagecore can also be (as a lifestyle) a sustainable initiative, a significant issue in our everyday lives. It focuses on what the individual can do for the future. Is growing our own food such a bad idea?
This fairy-tale dream is not without its faults. Critics have been quick to remind us that the dream of owning acres of land and farm animals in the past often came with BIPOC handling the manual labour. They certainly did not receive the benefits of this idyllic life, nor were they adequately compensated. Some think of it as the historical ‘gentrification’ of a lifestyle, like in major cities when minority populations are driven out of their neighbourhoods to make way for white residents who want to live on the other side of the tracks.
It’s important to remember the reasons why we’ve left the past behind. Injustices, illness and misunderstandings abound in our history books, and we would do well to learn from them before blindly associating romantic tropes. But, cottagecore is malleable. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to life, as can be seen by the creators who advocate for it. The primary aim is one of happiness through simplicity of emotion, and with all that goes on in our world, I think we can all see the appeal.