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.