What is Cottagecore?

Matthew Baines

During the Pandemic the Cottagecore aesthetic exploded dramatically as a foil from the horrors of Coronavirus and an escape into a more romanticised version of reality. But what exactly is Cottagecore? What does it stand for, why does it persist and what are the main elements from which it is formed?

Cottagecore as Escapism

Cottagecore aesthetic

The obvious answer to Cottagecore is that it is a means of escape from the realities of modern life, particularly around the time of the Covid-19 Pandemic. However, Cottagecore has its roots far deeper than the the 2020s. The obvious comparison is with the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century where designers such as Liberty and William Morris were celebrating nature and the use of natural designs and materials. During the Industrial Revolution (as well as the Irish Famine) many families had migrated from the countryside into the cities where they experienced the horrors of poverty, bad health and social exploitation.

For those with a little money, a more idealised form of the recent past began to emerge, which probably never existed, with a filtered, pastoral, Arcadian aesthetic of beautiful countryside cottages, milk maids and farmer boys living in a rural idyll. Think of the Hay Wain by Constable for example. These chocolate box images were exactly that, stirring up positive feelings of nostalgia in order to sell products. In reality rural poverty was a huge problem, with no social care, little transport and a hand-to-mouth existence, especially in times of failed harvests.

These Arcadian backdrops were of their time. Books by Enid Blyton that were popular right up to the end of the 20th century are now seen as sexist and elitist. Yet we look back on them with fondness, ignoring the golliwogs and the class system that exploited a majority of the population in the UK during the last century. Are we guilty or just dreamy? Are we able to separate the wholesome nature of Cottagecore from the negativity that existed alongside this previous life that most people never enjoyed?

I think that despite the negative aspects of the past, Cottagecore seizes on to the positives, as a means of escapism. Almost like a therapy we love to think of the past through our rose-tinted spectacles. It helps us face the realities of modernity.

Cottagecore as Mystery

Escapism also comes with mystery. Cottagecore brings with it a great sense of mystery and magic. Old tales of witches living in the woods, animals that spoke and magic potions with fairies and goblins. These are all tenets of Cottagecore and appeal to our imagination. From a design point of view they also allow us to delve deep into our creativity and develop designs and patterns that take us on a journey through the symbolism of woods and leafy hideaways into a world where there is the potential for anything to happen.

South London and a potted history of folklores and gypsies

Many people might not realise that South London used to be covered by a huge wood, dating back to Medieval times. It was called the Great North Wood and stretched from Camberwell to Croydon. Place names in London such as Colliers Wood, Honor Oak or Norwood are all derived from this wood. In fact Norwood is a contraction of the Great North Wood. These woods were important resources such as oak for shipbuilding or bark for the tannin and leather cottage industries in Bermondsey. Croydon was an established place for producing charcoal before it was possible to barge the product down from the north of England.

Queen of the Gypsies

These woods came with their own folklores and fictions. Samuel Pepys talks about visiting gypsies in Lambeth to have his fortune told. Margaret Finch was Queen of the Norwood Gypsies. She died in 1740, aged 108, and is reportedly buried in a square coffin inside Beckenham parish church in the position that she died in, sitting, smoking her pipe and telling her fortunes. The Norwood gypsy encampment continued until the Inclosure Act of 1773 but the location Gypsy Hill is there to this day.

Cottagecore builds on these mysteries and folklores, adding in characters and motifs that communicate back to us in visual form. Grumpy mushrooms, frogs and squirrels that hide a magic that only be uncovered through the aesthetic of Cottagecore and its close neighbour Goblincore. Fairy stories and magic is key to understanding the escapism of Cottagecore. 

Cottagecore as Sustainability

One of the most important aspects of Cottagecore in a 21st century context is sustainability. Gone are the big brand names that used to dominate our lives. Since the Pandemic these are meaningless and in fact more often than not, exploit the land and its people. Cottagecore prefers a sustainable lifestyle, one that re-uses natural products without polluting or exploiting the land. Think second hand shop purchases, re-using grandma's old cooking utensils, reading secondhand books rather than glossy lifestyle magazines. In fact anything whereby we are unplugged from the internet and the 24 hours a day news cycle. Homemade foods such as jams, breads and cakes are of course part of the landscape of Cottagecore. Secondhand clothes in gingham patterns or natural tones to complement our natural environment. 

Cottagecore as Coziness and Simple Living

Think natural palettes, dried flowers, plants, homemade bread, homemade clothes. Right now, we are living in a discourse of climate change and pandemic, so it makes sense that we would want to retreat back to a simpler form of living. The fact that Cottagecore exploded during the Pandemic says a lot about it being a touch paper to a growing feeling of unease amongst about the pressures of modern life.

We yearn for a simpler life, one that is not responding to emails and WhatsApp messages all the time, but rather one that revolves around a more pastoral way of living. Obviously on face value this is an elitist philosophy as we don't all have our country cottages to escape to where we pursue a nostalgic view of white middleclass coziness. However I think it is fair to say that contemporary Cottagecore is more democratic and inclusive. You don't need the cottage, you just need a positive attitude when it comes to coziness and simple living. 

Cottagecore as Inclusivity

This area of Cottagecore could be seen as a little problematic with the stereotype of white privilege associated with it. In fact Cottagecore has been criticised for being vulnerable to exploitation by far right groups, as it was in the 1930s.

It is important that we treat Cottagecore as inclusive and a re-invention of the past, rather than a re-living of the past. I think Cottagecore works best when it is portrayed in contrast to modernity, with modernity still there, but softened by a sprinkle of Cottagecore. We can all live in a museum of the past if we want to (actually we can't for reasons I have just stated), but we should never forget the negatives that came with the past. We might think we love the 70s lifestyle, but those of us who were there would also remember the power cuts, strikes, fights for black equality and women's rights that came with that.

Is Cottagecore an American fad exploited by English Influencers?

This is probably a question that you might want to make your own mind up about. Cottagecore is something that never existed in America, at least in the pastoral, Arcadian sense. In its purest form it is based on the idealised English countryside in a yesteryear that never existed here either. In the UK, however, we do enjoy the backdrop of the traditional countryside setting, with the cute cottages, leafy lanes, sties and rights of way through the most spectacular countryside where we can enjoy picnics and all things Cottagecore fairly easily. We also have a zeitgeist of 19th and 20th century authors and painters, such as Enid Blyton, William Morris and Constable who ignored the negative sides of the English countryside to take us into a world of neverland.

In the USA the concept has been seized upon. Music by Taylor Swift, that she wrote during Lockdown is exactly on point. Her videos are brimmed to the top with floaty dresses, earthy colours, cardigans and the contemporary Cottagecore vibe. She is definitely not being exploited. On the other hand, in her blog, BooksandQuills, Sanne has a great article containing 25 different Cottagecore influencers, most of whom are British. They really capture the spirit of what it means today. 

Cottagecore is here to stay

Cottagecore is a dreamy aesthetic of a past lifestyle that has been romanticised for the 21st Century at a time in our history where we need to cling on to something. There is nothing wrong with that so long as we use it democratically and inclusively. We can all make our focaccia breads and wear cute homemade clothes, but for some people the simple lifestyle is not a choice, nor is it a romantic vision. For some people, fearing eviction or harassment from landlord zealots it is far from their reality. It does remain, however, a valid aspiration and one into which anybody can escape in their minds.

Check out our own designs

At BillingtonPix we are having fun dipping our toes into the Cottagecore fashion aesthetic, as well as products that would work fabulously as additions to your living room design ideas. We play with digital designs in order to create patterns that will provide this vibe and sense of comfort that can be enjoyed by everybody. We also like the quirky nature of characterful woodland creatures that we use on some of our t-shirts. Take a look at our Cottagecore collection and see what you like best!

To end this blog, we will leave you with a cute Goblincore frog t-shirt. Goblincore is a subset of Cottagecore, but one that is more associated with the dirt and gnarls of what real nature is, rather than a stylised version. Find out more about Goblincore!

What is Cottagecore?


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