The internet has always been home to a wide range of subcultures. The creation of Tumblr in the late 2000s gave teens worldwide a hub where they could gather online. The microblogging platform provided youth with a new space for sharing their ideas, interests, and OTPs. But more than anything, its customizability, ease of use, and receptiveness to visual media in a time before Instagram made Tumblr the perfect place to share different fashion styles.
As the internet continues to evolve, new platforms emerge and so too do new fashion, art, and interior design styles. Called aesthetics, these styles organize associated elements of fashion and design into loosely defined guiding principles that, when followed, result in an outfit or image that can easily be recognized as being defined by that style.
Today, platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Tumblr form the pillars of virtually all of the aesthetic movements. Along with Dark Academia, a style that idealizes the liberal arts education of 19th-century upper-class European students, Cottagecore has emerged as one of the most famous and far-reaching of these aesthetics.
But to understand Cottagecore requires an understanding of the visual elements of the aesthetic, the community behind it, its driving philosophy, and the problems associated with the style.
What Makes Cottagecore?
The popularity of the Cottagecore aesthetic, especially when compared to less popular aesthetics like goblincore, make it easy to identify the essential elements that make something part of it. Though there is some overlap with other aesthetics found online, the fact that Cottagecore is typically older and bigger than these other aesthetics allow us to presume that they’re subgenres of the style.
So, how do you tell if something is Cottagecore or falls under its many subgenres? Generally speaking, anything can count as Cottagecore if it checks off most, if not all, of these common characteristics.
Unlike Angelcore, which favors longer hemlines, the outfits common to Cottagecore come in a variety of lengths. That said, Cottagecore hemlines still often fall between ankle to knee length and while necklines may vary as well, they tend to stay fairly on the modest side. What’s common across the board, however, is the use of relaxed silhouettes. Whether it’s a dress or jeans, Cottagecore outfits have a softness to them that characterizes grace and comfort. Even when an outfit has a more body-hugging fit, it will generally be loose enough to be cozy and easy to move around in.
The relaxed silhouettes of Cottagecore outfits communicate a few of its core values (i.e a laid-back approach to life). The loose, airy dresses of Cottagecore help emphasize the relaxed, go-with-the-flow ideals of the aesthetic. Plus, nothing says Cottagecore like running through a sunny field in a flowing muslin dress.
Warm and Earthy Colors
While Cottagecore outfits will often feature pastel colors like light blues and pinks, the aesthetic as a whole favors warm, earthy colors that draw inspiration from shades easily found in the natural world. Just do a quick search for ‘Cottagecore’ on Pinterest and you’ll see what I mean. The aesthetic is strongly associated with warm browns, creamy whites, and vibrant greens accented by pops of other brighter colors such as a lemony yellow, pomegranate red, or lavender blue.
Cottagecore’s dominant colors communicate another essential aspect of the aesthetic: a love of nature. Cottagecore’s attunement with the natural world also means that its practitioners tend to be environmentally aware. The aesthetic’s focus on sustainability encourages people to thrift their furniture and clothing. That’s why you’ll often see Cottagecore interior design feature used Windsor chairs, vintage porcelain, and crocheted doilies.
Nature and Natural Light
Another essential piece of the Cottagecore pie is the use of natural light and nature in photographs and art. Most, if not all, images tagged as ‘Cottagecore’ make use of natural light during the golden hour, a term used by photographers to refer to the last hour before sunset and the first hour after sunrise. The timing of Cottagecore photographs creates cozy, sentimental images that highlight the beauty of mundane objects like wicker baskets and bread on kitchen counters. Add a bouquet of artfully arranged flowers somewhere in the foreground or background and you have a quintessentially Cottagecore photo.
More than just the lighting, Cottagecore is distinguished by the subjects of its photos and art. Cottagecore images draw the attention of an online audience that is often distracted by loud, neon-colored advertisements and influencers flaunting the latest consumer products to the more attainable pleasures of life. The subjects of Cottagecore’s point of view include flowering weeds, lovingly made cups of tea, and detailed embroidery.
Making Food and Other Traditionally Feminine Arts
Just like other online aesthetics, Cottagecore involves more than looking the part, it also calls on people to participate in hobbies like gardening, baking, and sewing. Its love of a slower pace of life encourages Gen Z and Millennials alike to take part in simple, beautiful hobbies that create something they can enjoy. While eating sourdough bread and framing floral embroidery forms part of the experience of joining the Cottagecore aesthetic, what the style is really getting its practitioners to do is to practice introspection through doing.
By getting people to take time out of their day to do something they like for themselves, Cottagecore creates a mental space where people can create and be productive without the pressure of having to make money out of what they do. In this way, Cottagecore advocates for a more mindful approach to living that strips away artifice into what its core philosophy believes truly matters: What makes you happy?
While the specific appearance of Cottagecore is unique to the late 2010s and early 2020s, its ideals and principles aren’t. Though Cottagecore itself is a child of the internet era, the ideas behind it have virtually been around for as long as metropolitan living and work schedules have existed.
The Origins of Cottagecore
Cottagecore may seem like a new trend but the truth is that the ideologies of the aesthetic have been around for centuries. One of the first predecessors of the Cottagecore way of life originates as far back as ancient Greece. During the Hellenistic age, philosopher Epicurus decided to take a step back from the typical pursuits of philosophy. While other philosophers of the time stayed up in their ivory towers, he realized that toying with metaphysics and ethics did not answer a real, pressing concern of life: becoming happy.
Naturally, Epicurus was ridiculed for his approach to philosophy. Epicurus’ out-of-touch peers saw his school of thought as lacking in virtue or any real academic rigor. Standing in stark contrast to Stoicism, another philosophy that seeks to solve how to live a good life, Epicureanism discarded duty in favor of friendship and hard work in favor of leisurely tending gardens in communes. Despite the practicality of Epicureanism, however, the philosophy never gained significant traction among intellectuals. Since only the literate elite had the means to continue philosophical traditions, Epicureanism waned.
According to The Classical Tradition, Epicureanism had essentially died in the Middle Ages. But while the philosophy itself had fallen from grace, if it could even be said had held it at all, the pursuit of happiness lived on after Epicureanism.
We see a continuation of the idealization of rural life as a key to happiness appear again later in the Renaissance era. English poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe went on to pen ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love‘ sometime around the 1600s. In it, a shepherd implores the woman he loves to cast off her current life to live with him in rural bliss. The shepherd promises that she won’t need anything else but the beauty of the English countryside where she can sit by crystalline rivers and listen to “melodious birds sing madrigals” to her.
Marlowe wasn’t alone in his newfound appreciation for peaceful country life. Other artists of the Renaissance period brought nature out of the background and made it a central subject of art and literature. That said, the poetry of the era portrayed a tension between rural idealism and the world at large. In his poem, ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’, Sir Walter Raleigh, an English statesman in Queen Elizabeth’s court, pretty much disses the simple joys put forward by Marlowe’s shepherd. In the poem, Raleigh’s nymph rolls her eyes at the impermanence of wildflowers, saying that nothing in nature was beautiful enough to draw her away from her immortal, perhaps urban, life.
But while the nymph cared little for the English countryside, her immortality giving her no kinship with the impermanent, the message of throwing it all away and running off to the countryside for a slower, more idyllic life resonated with people.
When it comes to the pressures of being watched by a public that is waiting for you to fail, few women can hold a candle to the pressures that surrounded a young Austrian archduchess who went on to become the most hated woman in French history. Thrust into a life of complicated court rules, political schemes, and the expectation to have a son, Marie Antoinette would often retreat to her own Cottagecore paradise, the Hameau de la Reine. Situated in a park at the Palace of Versailles, the Hameau de la Reine was a place where Marie Antoinette could throw off the pressures of being queen and the attire that it entailed for the simpler chemise de la reine.
The white, relatively unstructured chemise de la reine was a significant departure from the strictly regulated, lavish attire of the French court. The dress was made of thin muslin that draped over the body with a leisurely ease characteristic of the hamlet where Marie Antoinette would often wear it. But because she was a queen, the chemise de la reine didn’t just stay in Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe – it became a trend among women all throughout France. To put it in a contemporary context, the chemise de la reine was the strawberry dress of its time.
You read that right. Marie Antoinette, the French queen who escaped her reality with a pretend rural village, was also a pioneer of a relaxed approach to fashion. Now, what does this make her? One of the first documented Cottagecore girls.
But like every trend, Marie Antoinette’s proto-Cottagecore aesthetic wasn’t exclusive to her.
Before the days of Cottagecore Pinterest pinboards and Tumblr aesthetic blogs, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer took the spotlight of art away from the public sphere and historic events, instead turning his attention inward to home and hearth. His art featured mundane scenes from daily life, immortalizing them on canvas. This quiet, slower world was, like Cottagecore today, dominated by women. His eye for finding beauty in the ordinary resulted in realistic paintings that were characterized by warm colors, exceptional use of light, and the portrayal of domestic activities. Though he is best known for his Girl with a Pearl Earring, paintings such as The Lacemaker and The Milkmaid make it clear that his focus was the beauty of ordinary life.
Though paintings of solitary people were often portraits of the rich and powerful, The Milkmaid depicted a working-class woman. She’s completely absorbed in her work, eyes drawn solely to the container in front of her. In this moment, Vermeer’s milkmaid doesn’t care that you’re looking nor does she consider whether you’d like her to hurry up. Right now, she just enjoys the quiet, steady pace of her tasks.
The Impressionist art movement of the 19th century would follow in the footsteps of Vermeer. Like the Dutch painter, Impressionists artists like Claude Monet centered his art on the mundane, depicting natural landscapes and idyllic scenes of tranquility. In true Cottagecore fashion, the painter would later often paint outdoors.
But unlike the Impressionist movement, one predecessor of Cottagecore took a more political stance. The hippie counterculture movement of the 60s would go on to take the ideals that characterize Cottagecore today to a true battle of ideologies. The pacifistic hippies came as a response to the United States’ forced conscriptions for the Vietnam War. Disillusioned with a failing society, the hippies rejected the dominant culture that expected them to fulfill civic duties and social expectations at the expense of personal happiness and safety. Put simply, the hippies “dropped out” of mainstream culture and established communes just like the Epicureans before them.
Though most of the hippie communes of the 60s have failed, and have even been involved in countless controversies like child neglect, the hippie philosophy of dropping out of the rat race and creating a quiet life for oneself lives on.
Cottagecore as a Philosophy
Few trends today exemplify the Cottagecore philosophy of going back to the land, abandoning the rat race, and living a peaceful life with nature the way the recent trends of “I do not dream of labor.” and ‘lying flat’ do.
The phrase “I do not dream of labor.” originated on Twitter as a viral tweet and meme about how Gen Z is now too lazy to even want to work. But the phrase quickly became more than just a joke. By stating that they didn’t dream of labor, Gen Z had turned the cultural idealization of the ‘dream job‘ on its head. The “I do not dream of labor.” trend reframes our dreams of having a job that we like and pays well into what the trend thinks it really is: a way that we’ve been indoctrinated to idealize working our lives away for money and prestige.
“I do not dream of labor.” started to trend during the midst of quarantine when time away from offices and the hustle and bustle of modern life gave employees and students the opportunity to simply exist in the comfort of their homes. As more and more people found that they could be productive while spending less time on work, many of them also found time to actually think about whether their work lives mattered to them in a personally meaningful way or if it was just something they did because they are essentially forced to for survival reasons.
But for Chinese youths, not dreaming about labor isn’t just a rejection of capitalist values – it’s also a counterculture movement with the moving part taken out of the equation.
The 躺平 (read: tang ping) movement first hit the internet through a post on Baidu. Luo Huazhong, who had the username “Kind-Hearted Traveler”, shared his strongly Cottagecore sentiments about work culture in a now-removed post dated April 2021. In it, he talked about how he was working as little as possible so he could actually have time to enjoy his life away from the crushing demands of the Chinese labor market. Tang ping, meaning ‘lying flat’, rejects the social pressure to have children, get a lucrative job, and work 6 days a week in favor of living a more mindful life. Though the philosopher Diogenes, who was known for living in downright squalid conditions, is the last person you’d think of as Cottagecore, Luo Huazhong parallels lying flat with the ancient philosopher’s parsed down approach to living.
Luo, in keeping with the spirit behind Cottagecore, wrote: “Lying flat is my wise movement. Only through lying flat, can humans measure up to things.”
It may look different, but the essential message remains the same as that of Cottagecore’s: doing less gives us time for being.
The emergence of this central ‘do less, be more’ philosophy that fuels Cottagecore is a response to the existing socioeconomic conditions that we live in. While it has created movements and brought alternative ways of thinking into the spotlight, another thing that Cottagecore has done is to reshape our modern culture through art and community.
Cottagecore in Pop Culture
The COVID-19 lockdowns of the past year may have slowed the spread of the coronavirus, but it sped up the popularity of the Cottagecore aesthetic. Baking sourdough bread, a common staple of Cottagecore picnic spreads, became a popular hobby during the pandemic. For some, the peace and free time that lockdown gave them was a chance to cultivate new skills and, while many took the chance to learn marketable ones, a good number of us learned old school hobbies like baking, sewing, and gardening.
The mental breathing room that the pandemic provided was the environment that led singer-songwriter Taylor Swift to release two albums in the same year. Evermore and Folklore, the artist’s back-to-back hit albums of 2020, have a more fantastical atmosphere to them as if the stillness of a lockdown world had allowed Swift to recharge her creative energies and imagine a world of fantasy and, well, folklore. Both albums were noted for their strong Cottagecore vibes which endeared the artist to Cottagecore enthusiasts and introduced the aesthetic to the rest of her fans.
While Cottagecore is open to everyone, the aesthetic has its strongest attachment not to Swifties, but to the LGBTQ+ community.
In her video essay ‘Why Is Cottagecore So Gay?’, Youtuber Rowan Ellis brings up a characteristic of the Cottagecore community that many have noticed but few talk about. Cottagecore as a way of life is significantly associated with queerness, especially female homosexuality. It’s such a thing within the community that the term Cottagecore lesbian now exists as a way for women who love women to lightheartedly refer to themselves within the context of the aesthetic.
Ellis explains that the Cottagecore aesthetic didn’t just give people a mental space in the world that exists separately from the stresses of modern life, but it also gave LGBTQ+ people a safe space to engage in traditionally rural activities without being exposed to common attitudes towards queerness that, due to the more homogenous nature of rural communities, tend to be more hostile towards members of the LGBTQ+ community when compared to cities that typically have a more diverse population.
The Problem with Cottagecore
The beauty and safety of the Cottagecore aesthetic isn’t without its problems. Going back to the philosophy aspect of Cottagecore, several responses to the “I do not dream of labor.” trend highlight the inherently privileged stance of the phrase. Dropping out of the rat race, other Youtubers argued, was a luxury reserved only for people who could afford not to play. Working class people just don’t have the disposable income to buy a farm in a valley and live in permanent peace. Further, hard work to them was a badge of honor and a way to lift members of their families and communities out of poverty. They couldn’t just accept the shepherd’s offer to passively sip tea by rivers while singing with birds.
For this reason, members of disadvantaged groups felt that Cottagecore reeked of privilege. It was a mark of having been raised in a comfortable environment that placed no real pressure on an individual to ‘win’ in their careers, simply because their financial safety meant that there were few stakes to begin with.
Aside from the differences in attitude towards work that Cottagecore has revealed between classes, the aesthetic has also exposed another layer of elitism inherent in it. Living according to the Cottagecore way of life, despite its veneer of a down-to-earth rustic routine, required an astronomical amount of money to be possible. At the end of the day, some argued, real rural life wouldn’t be a pretty vlog of tending sheep in flouncy dresses. It meant hours of backbreaking labor as you tried to keep yourself fed.
This truth is startlingly clear in a video uploaded by a channel by the name of ‘Mother the Mountain Farm’ where she explains how she ‘lives without money’ by living off of generational wealth. It turns out that the secret to living Cottagecore on a budget is to have your parents foot the bill by living on a farm that they owned.
Unsurprisingly, the video left a bitter taste in the mouths of people looking for tips on how to live their Cottagecore dreams.
Yeah. Maybe there was a reason the first Cottagecore girl was a French queen.
Want to read more about internet aesthetics and their unique approach to living a good life? Check out Angelcore: The Internet’s New Femme (and Feminist) Aesthetic for a look into how fashion is informing the way we think about women’s liberation.