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The wicked truth about Cottage Core This vogueish online idealisation of rural life is another way of ignoring its struggles

#cottagecore: a response to climate disaster, claustrophobia and pandemic.

#cottagecore: a response to climate disaster, claustrophobia and pandemic.


May 4, 2020   4 mins

On TikTok and Instagram and Tumblr, people post photographs of idealised cottages, gardens, and birds; of ducklings, baking and washing on a line. They encourage each other to knead dough, befriend animals — like Snow White did — paint landscapes and grow herbs in their city homes. They call it Cottage Core.

On TikTok, the hashtag #cottagecore has over a hundred million views and, with pandemic, it is growing in strength: the artistic arm of Extinction Rebellion. It is an ideal — and idealised — aesthetic of fear; a new Romanticism. Initially it gathered at the edges of the internet and now it blooms — and why not? For the urban modern to yearn for the rural past is age-old, a return to the imagined kindness of (Mother) Nature; a response to climate disaster, claustrophobia and pandemic. It is nostalgia in an age of pain.

Nostalgia is not the same thing as remembrance though, which is knowing. Nostalgia is self-delusion; it is not knowing. Cottage Core — the word “core” basically means enthusiasm — is a daydream of Generation Z, who have lived much of their lives online. This is the contradiction it holds: it promotes dreams of a technology-free world using only technology. The original Romanticism was also contradictory, but it didn’t feel as thwarted or as despairing as this. Those fake rustics were also progressives who, despite their politics, rebelled against the Industrial Revolution, and its landscape of ruin and soot. But they didn’t see the worst of it: artists never do. They could afford to run around Switzerland screaming at mountains.

Cottage Core is not, they say, the aesthetic of the future surrendered wife, although it is confused by outsiders with the #tradwife trend. Cottage Core is fashionable in queer circles. Its reach goes beyond Cath Kidston fans — girls who don’t want to grow up — to something more ambitious: girls who do want to live in their own world.

Nor it is quite ‘Marie Antoinette Syndrome’, in which the rich covet an idealised peasant life, as she did at Le Petit Trianon dressed as a shepherdess: a shepherdess with a crown, until she lost it. We are speaking of Generation Z, after all: where will they find the money to visit Bruton Farm in Somerset, with its attendant branch of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery, which used to have a recording of a cow mooing in a reconstituted cow shed? Few of them will ever afford a pretty cottage with a duck pond in the garden; or buy clothes from Cabbages & Roses, which are designed for aristocrats wandering in bogs. They dream in photographs and social media posts: thwarted, and I wonder if that is, entirely, its charm.

Cottage Core is not interior design-based, snobbish or whimsical, then; not really, not underneath. Timing is everything, and the timing of Generation Z is bad. They are looking to a world that is functionally dying; you can see that in the yearning. Cottage Core is a fairy tale. One fan told Teen Vogue she was inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; another likes to dress up as a fairy; yet another says she performs spells, and this is not abnormal. The aesthetic reminds me as much of the witches’ hovels of the Brothers Grimm as Country Life and its obsession with the existential possibilities of stone flooring. Fairy tales are how you help children process their fears. When adults — and they are adults, even if they speak like children — turn to fairy tales it is something new to fear.

Cottage Core, then, bespeaks a desire to retreat further than simply from town to imagined country, and deeper into the transformative power of magic. And why not? They will need magic. It is a fair sequel to populism, magic, and I fully expect a renaissance, since science, some will argue, has failed us.

This pandemic is only the latest terror. Climate change is raging, and it will get worse. I wonder if this lovely spring — lusher after a wet winter and brighter without the fumes — will soon seem a last flowering, a rebuke. Under these circumstances it is normal, even healthy, to dream of ducklings and a vegetable patch: but it is still desperately sad.

Cottage Core is impervious to reality. That is what dreams are for. It is in no sense a rational response to developed Capitalism, which needs political solutions. In any case, it makes no sense for women. A washing line is pretty, sometimes, but it is an aesthetic of powerlessness. Gardening is hard work; farming too. Keeping an ancient cottage clean enough for Instagram is a full-time job; and, as someone who owns one (or part of one, the rest belongs to the bank) changing your surroundings does not necessarily change you for the better. Women were once delighted not to be at the hen house, the mangle and the dairy. Modernity emancipated them from that, and they were grateful.

It doesn’t matter. This kind of dreaming is, at its heart, a not knowing: a not wanting to know. I suspect that, for young Cottage Core fans, this is entirely conscious and deliberate. It is a lament for something they will never have, and the tragedy is that they know it.

There are political consequences too, to this dreaming, but that is age-old; even John Constable’s famous haywain might have been a unicorn, for all its truth about rural life, and he finished it in 1821. To idealise rural life is not to praise it. Rather, it is to ignore it; to damn it to not being known. Terrible things are done to rural communities by painting them into a dreamworld. Most rural children long for the opportunities of the city, even as they ebb away to nothing. They would laugh at Cottage Core.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Sportinguista zoeeavidigal
Sportinguista zoeeavidigal
4 years ago

Interesting. We’re thinking of going back to a rural life. Ironically I started there so know exactly what we’re going back to and we’re not Gen Z. Twenty years in the city has broken me mentally and the city is no use for a child unless you have money. My longing is based on remembrance, yes, chickens and goats etc are hard work but they’re more rewarding than the Gangsta Rap fan whose radio you’d like to shove where the sun don’t shine!

simon taylor
simon taylor
4 years ago

Interestingly, thanks to the pandemic. a fair few gen z have moved back with their parents in our village,Including one of our own. At first they`d wander around wearing headphones and not saying hello. We told ours -this is a village, you say hello to everyone, and if you wear headphones, you will miss out on birdsong etc. I feel other parents must have acted similarly, as now they are integrating nicely. there is a little woke/left wing reactionary/right wing friction in our house (that lamb should be a pet, no that lamb should be dinner) but we have all learned to rub along.
There are opportunities to live and work rural areas, but you will earn a third of what you would in a city, but your accommodation will only cost you a quarter ( and thats in somerset). A trade well worth making I feel.

svetlanaholmes
svetlanaholmes
4 years ago

I loved the article, thank you. I would like to add that america as a whole is idealized just as cottage core. I live in Europe, and it always baffles me what Americans say. We are the richest. Our country is the most powerful. Money this, money that. Is Greece safe? Isn’t Spain poor? Oh my god Im so humbled by the thirld world. Your health system is terrible. For us europeans, scary terrible. Your cities are very dangerous. We keep watching on tv shootings every other day, 3, 10, 40, 50 dead, malls, churches, discos, schools, you name it. We keep seeing civil unrest in ferguson, in michigan, in oregon. Homeless by the thousands, everywhere. Miles of cars queing for food. Unhealthy people with obesity rates that are scary. Its all an illusion, the white country, the rich one. Americans that happen to be black have no civil rights, in the land of the free, of the brave. I wish the constant bombings,the millions of civilians killed by american troops abroad for decades, in Laos, in Guatemala, in Iraq, in Yemen, where an illusion too. They are very real. They empire is indeed powerfull. So powerful, that it damages everyone. Reality is here.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago
Reply to  svetlanaholmes

Black people do have civil rights in the USA.

jbkuhner
jbkuhner
4 years ago

I like your writing a lot, Tanya, but this one is a bit like “proving” to the world that exercise is stupid and everyone should just sit around on their computers all day because a few instagram fitness freaks turn out to be vain and vapid. Nature isn’t the only strand of human life, but it’s an indispensable one for the whole cord. If you want to prove otherwise, try refuting the arguments of someone with heft (I’d recommend Wendell Berry).

benbow01
benbow01
4 years ago

I lived in a rural setting in the 1950s and 1960s, with local, organic, seasonal food… expensive, riddled with rot and bugs, decreasing quality as the season progressed, monotonous; no car, low carbon footprint, standing for a hour in the freezing cold and snow waiting for the school bus, cut off for days in Winter, 2 TV channels, wireless, no central heating, few shops with limited choice.

Couldn’t wait to get out. Boutique rural is not the real thing.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

Et in Arcadia Ego…

I think all Fakery is eventually experienced as distasteful in whatever form it takes -we seem to grow heartily tired of the inauthentic (thankfully) but then paradoxically we often quickly look for something else equally vacuous to fill the vacuum. That’s the fashion. (I don’t think Wilde ever said anything quite so on the money as when he commented that fashion, “is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” )

I guess reality is very hard to bear and seen as the ugly thing to get away from. Repeatedly indulging in fickle fantasies kills time that would otherwise be spent in difficult reality. We all do it to an extent -it’s the extent to which we do it that matters.

Children especially need a certain amount of magical fantasy to contend with the vicissitudes of reality. It’s a reasonable and necessary psychological defence for a child against what otherwise would be impossible for an undeveloped mind to comprehend or bear. But children eventually learn that the more time spent tolerating reality, the more can be experienced and achieved in life.

There is not much more irritating, or more useless, than infantilised adults, and (in my view) not much that is lower than those who profit so excessively it seems from the positive promotion of such vapidity.

roger white
roger white
4 years ago

Nice article. But of course nothing much is really happening with the climate: it’s all spin. St John’s wort will flower in June this summer just as it did in Richard Jefferies’ day in the 19th century. Bluebells will keep flowering in april. Daffodils mostly in February & March. The gentle warming since the 16th century will continue – sea levels will continue to rise at the same tiny pace they have for centuries. There is just so long the climate change cultists can keep spinning the ” apocalypse now” story. Meanwhile there is more ice in the antarctic than in the eighties. ( less ice in the arctic) – though we’ve only had satellite data since 1979.
Then again the world has believed in myths for thousands of years ( God/fairies) so who knows?

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

Because, like most things you see on Instagram etc, Cottage Core is about portraying an image of desirable, idyllic lifestyles. It is about wanting something not because you connect with it on some deep level, or because it suits your personality, but because of who it marks you out to be. And to get a healthy following, it is best to find a niche, and hope that many others jump on the bandwagon. Take, for example, the hashtag #hikersofinstagram, which basically involves photos of girls with nice figures wearing gym pants standing around in beautiful landscapes. Nice to look at, sure, but I doubt most of them could put in a couple of miles of actual hiking. Not ‘conspicuous consumption’, but ‘conspicuous activity’.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
4 years ago

I am afraid I missed the point of this article- Its understanding of the meanings of Nostalgia and memory are confused to say the least. I don’t know who ‘Country cottage’ are, and I don’t feel I am missing anything Would a clearer plain speaking article have achieved better ends I wonder?

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

I think we should have seen the warning signs when adults started taking up colouring books as a way to de stress.

I’m afraid this is just more infantilism.