By Ellie Redpath
These days, most people – or, at any rate, most online people – have heard of the cottagecore aesthetic, if at least only in passing. In case you haven’t come across the word before, it refers to an aesthetic centred around an idyllic, fairly unrealistic portrayal of rural Western agricultural life: baking bread, cultivating a small allotment, sewing, walking through meadows in long, floaty dresses; the suffix ‘-core’, instigated by the 1980s hardcore movement, is used to denote genre.
Until relatively recently, the cottagecore aesthetic was predominantly popular amongst young queer women, posting pictures of themselves sewing, baking, or wearing dreamy outfits, or expressing the desire to run away to the countryside with their girlfriends and start a small farm. But after quarantine started, what began as a relatively niche queer sub-culture quickly shot into the mainstream as people turned to baking, handicrafts, and spending far more time online, on apps such as TikTok where the cottagecore aesthetic is incredibly popular, in order to pass the many hours spent at home.
Co-opted for the mainstream
Personally, I was irritated when I saw a Guardian article a month or so ago describing David Beckham as a cottagecore icon, but didn’t think too much of it; then The Telegraph started calling it the biggest summer fashion and homeware trend of 2020, and the co-option of the aesthetic began to feel more uncomfortable.
None of these articles recognised its original popularity among the WLW (women-loving-women) community. Most recently, Taylor Swift, a cishet woman, has been lauded for encapsulating cottagecore with her newest album Folklore. The album features ‘Betty’, a song which superficially seemed to describe a young sapphic relationship until Swift elaborated that the narrator of the song is a boy.
At first glance, this might not seem to be that big of a deal – after all, we cannot gatekeep people from connecting with nature and finding peace and mindfulness in baking and crafting. However, when digging into the origins of this aesthetic, it is not hard to see why many consider it problematic.
Historical origins of cottagecore
The last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, is sometimes described as the original cottagecore enthusiast due to her fetishization of rural agricultural life. As a teenager she would often leave the luxuries of the palace behind for Hameau de la Reine, a small village in the grounds of Versailles built specifically for her to play at being a peasant girl.
Yet this only highlighted the drastic inequalities between rich and poor in 18th century France. While Marie Antoinette always had her palatial riches to go back to, the people she thought she was imitating actually lived lives marked by backbreaking agricultural labour, malnutrition, and hardship.
Even though this example is extreme, it still rings true today. Our romanticising of countryside life as simple and idyllic ignores how taxing it truly can be to make a living from farming, especially as it emerged in 2009 that 1 in 4 farmers were living below the poverty line.
Furthermore, cottagecore images are often uncomfortably white and Western. Most pictures posted and reposted on Tumblr and Twitter feature white women, especially now that the movement has become more mainstream.
The aesthetic also recently gained popularity amongst far-right and ‘trad-wife’ groups, who view the movement as a return to misogynistic and racist ‘traditional’ values. It’s important to recognise that there are similarities between our desires to run away, buy some land, and start a farm, and the white colonial mindset; white colonizers starting smallholdings on stolen lots, often using Eurocentric farming techniques, pushed indigenous people from the lands that are rightfully theirs.
A safe space for sapphic women
While we must recognise and counter these problematic facets of the movement, it is interesting that the concept of living peacefully in the countryside resonates with so many young queer women. Many find it comforting to think about being visibly queer and happy in the countryside, after growing up in rural communities where homophobia was rampant.
It’s also viewed as a way for queer women to practise domesticity outside of patriarchal confines. In the past, activities such as sewing and baking were considered ‘women’s work’, while their husbands earned money outside of the home. So, the idea of two women living peacefully, committing domestic acts out of love and outside of any heteropatriarchal dynamic, seems freeing.
The innocence of, say, a women making jam for her wife contrasts so heavily and so refreshingly with the hypersexualised portrayal of lesbian couples in pornography and wider media.
Recognising the importance of cottagecore
The movement has many problematic aspects that must be addressed but is ultimately rooted in queer women enjoying peaceful domestic bliss together, free from any male gaze. Therefore, it is frustrating to see this aesthetic sanitised and marketed to white, middle-class, cishet people in papers such as The Telegraph. Yet this is not surprising, as queer fashion is so often co-opted by the mainstream and stripped of its origins.
Again, there is nothing wrong with more and more people reaping the mental health benefits of spending time in nature and practising homely domestic tasks in pursuit of mindfulness. Done right, it could lead to several positive outcomes: better collective mental health, men performing more household tasks, a more environmentally sustainable society. Yet we need to recognise the inherently problematic side to the fetishization of farming life, and the original importance of this movement as a queer domestic solace for the sapphic community.