The idea that modern life can be too much, and the search for an escape to something simpler, calmer, more innocent, is nothing new. Escapism, in one form or another, has always been present - a fantasy that helps people to retreat from the stresses, responsibilities, and obligations of everyday life. An interesting aspect of such escapism is how this wish to run away gets expressed and what human desire it tries to fulfill. This can be analyzed through the type of escapist fantasy that becomes popular in a given moment in popular culture - whether it is exploring space in a fantastical airship, running away to a deserted island, or turning to an aesthetic and way of life like "cottagecore". It is this third form of escapism that will be discussed in this paper - the cottagecore aesthetic that rose to popularity through 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In The Washington Post (September 10, 2020), Danielle Braff stated that on a popular website like Pinterest, the searches for "cottagecore fashion" rose by about 80% from June 2019 to June 2020. In the same vein, on Tumblr, searches and likes for cottagecore content rose by 153% and 550% respectively between March and April of 2020. But, what is cottagecore, exactly? Isabel Slone defined it in the following way:"Take modern escapist fantasies like tiny homes, voluntary simplicity, forest bathing and screen-free childhoods, then place them inside a delicate, moss-filled terrarium, and the result will look a lot like cottagecore." (2020)
This desire to run away to a more simplistic time, where one has time to bake pies, take strolls in luscious woods, and learn how to make (and then actually stitch) a quilt by hand, is not completely new. Marie Antoinette was the Queen of France between 1774 and 1791. History enthusiasts and trivia lovers might know that in the latter part of her reign, she was known to enjoy a form of escapism that involved masquerading as a shepherd and living in a happy, small, cosy pastoral community. This community was modelled on a utopian, vaguely Hellenistic-shepherd way of living, something that could have been seen in Virgil’s Bucolics. Obviously, however, the social norms of the 18th century still applied. Within this community, there were no misunderstandings about social roles: nobody would have spoken to the Queen as one would speak to a shepherd.
Likewise, the possibility of actually doing the grueling work of a real-life shepherd in 18th-century France, or even in an idealised Hellenistic past, was out of the question. But even if enthusiasts see Marie Antoinette as an icon of cottagecore, the ethos of today's cottagecore is quite different from the type of escapism of which Marie Antoinette could have partaken. For example, being a product of the pandemic, it is very much marked by solitude. If one were to scroll through cottagecore hashtags on most social media platforms, what one would see are not large groups of people pretending to be herders. What one will instead encounter is a slew of pictures of beautiful sunny hills dotted with flowers, or of perfectly baked pies, or of intricate works of embroidery - all associated with activities that are usually solitary.
The beautiful hills and woods depicted so often in cottagecore media are not realities for the people posting about them in 2020. Especially in a year in which mobility was an impossibility for most people, whether because of movement-limiting rules or financial restraint, the aesthetical pining for beautiful was nothing more than that - pining. As Brand (2020) pointed out, this is incredibly reminiscent of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s view of nature. In his Discourse on Equality: On the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau gives what is basically a genealogy of humankind from its creation to its current state. In Rousseau’s work, one can pretty easily identify a moment in human history (as described by him) in which humankind was in balance with everything, when there was equilibrium between humans and nature. Rousseau theorizes small social gatherings of human beings in which there is no real surplus: everything that is caught or hunted is eaten, everything that is produced is used. And this moment, before the creation of agriculture and private property, is, in his view, as close to an ideal state as one can possibly get. As Rousseau sees it, society has nothing to do with an ideal natural order, and this perversion is bound to create nothing but great unhappiness in humans. He states:
In a word, the numberless pains and anxieties annexed to every condition, and which the mind of man is constantly a prey to; these are the fatal proofs that most of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided them all by adhering to the simple, uniform and solitary way of life prescribed to us by nature. (Rousseau, p. 20)
Rousseau finds only one escape from this turmoil, only one balm to the soul, and that is to go back as much as possible to a natural state of living, to nature. It could be argued that Rousseau's "balm for the human soul" is something that, instinctively, people who publish or enjoy cottagecore media have been reaching for, at least on an aesthetic level. It represents a desire for Rousseau's return to nature. It is a source of healing for a soul exhausted by the social constraints and real-world issues that have become so monumental as to be inescapable. A prime example of such an inescapable situation is, of course, the one created by the COVID-19 pandemic itself.
As with so many internet-based movements, cottagecore has, after its inception and rise in popularity, been problematized and critiqued. From the outside, the main criticism is the most obvious and glaring one: in a year as steeped in social and political issues as 2020, it seems ethically dubious to wilfully ignore the real world. If there was ever a moment in which citizens had to stay present and awake, it was the one in which a global pandemic raged, with all the very real problems that it brought. Many people had to deal with the passing of loved ones without being able to say a last goodbye, either in life or in death, because it was not safe. It might therefore be seen as dangerously delusional to think that one can just 'turn off' the news, however grim it might be, to fantasise about being an 18th-century poet whose only obligation is to walk amongst blooming fields of daffodils.
So, is the cottagecore fantasy of "returning to nature" really as simple and harmless as it first appears? Is there danger lurking in its disengagement from political discourse, from life, from reality? If done to the extreme, the answer to this is obviously "yes". Disconnecting completely from real life and real people always carries great risks. And yet, if there ever was a moment in which a temporary retreat into fantasy might help people cope with their daily lives, 2020 was such a moment. When the stresses from the outside world are constant and ceaseless, perhaps it can help to imagine oneself a little mouse, cleaning one's doorway with a feather. In a way, it is no wonder that cottagecore has retained its popularity as an aesthetic ideal that allows its enthusiasts to jump into a Beatrix Potter novel, if only for a while.
Braff D., How the #cottagecore Internet Aesthetic Dovetails with Pandemic Travel, The Washington Post, September 10, 2020.
Brand, L., Crafting Cottagecore : Digital Pastoralism and the Production of an Escapist Fantasy. The Coalition of Master’s Scholars on Material Culture, June 25, 2021 https://cmsmc.org/publications/crafting-cottagecore .
Martin, M., Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de Medici to Marie Antoinette, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2011.
Slone, I., Escape into Cottagecore, Calming Ethos for Our Febrile Moment, The New York Times, March 10, 2020.
Rousseau, J.J., Discourse on Inequality: On the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, The Floating Press, 2009 (from a 1910 edition) www.thefloatingpress.com
Vigèe Le Brun, E. V. (1793), Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress [Oil] Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hameau_de_la_Reine#/media/File:Vig%C3%A9e_Le_Brun,_%C3%89lisabeth_-_Marie-Antoinette_en_gaulle,_1783.JPG
Allingham H., Children on a Path Outside a Thatched Cottage, West Horsley, Surrey [Pencil and Watercolour] Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottagecore#/media/File:Allingham_Helen_Children_On_A_Path_Outside_A_Thatched_Cottage_West_Horsley_Surrey.jpg
Potter, B. (1902), The Mice at Work, Threading a Needle [Pen and Watercolour] from illustrations for The Tailor of Gloucester Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/potter-the-mice-at-work-threading-the-needle-a01100