Writers and artists have always believed that nature offers meaningful insight into the human condition. From Hesiod’s didactic poetry to John Keats’ odes and Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire; nature has been described over and over again, given form in the rising sun, the moving cloud, the rogue wildflower. Percy Bysshe Shelley appealed to the fields, the mountains, the waters to heal his soul in Ode to the West Wind. All of them believed that somewhere, be it overlooking a valley or in the middle of a forest, there was a world that made them happy, that satisfied their wants.
A cultural manifestation of a pastoral, cottagecore is becoming an increasingly common preoccupation in the modern world. This budding aesthetic movement paints the picture of an idyllic landscape and prioritises the simple pleasures in one’s life. Cottagecore turns its nose up at sixteen-hour workdays, at the fast-paced anxieties of late-stage capitalism, at toxic masculinity. It rejects the connections we make under these systems, labelling them inauthentic facsimiles of genuine relationships. The aim is not to be disconnected, or isolated, but to find new forms of authentic connections that arise from shifted priorities. The cottage in the woods is not alone, but part of a healthy community built on a system that prioritises things other than the demands of the market.
Cottagecore came to me at a time where I found myself thinking that things had gotten as bad as they could; after which, of course, they only got worse. I was sitting on my floor, my thumb twitching to refresh an Instagram feed that had barely finished loading in the first place. It was then that I saw a little house thatched with wisteria, old books with brown pages peeking out from the windowsill. I began to imagine my life through the prism of that image; a life that wasn’t spent worrying about political problems I had no hope of solving, a life that wasn’t spent in extensive periods of self-delusion because it was better than the alternative. That little picture with lilac flowers had so much power over me in that moment.
But yet, I was restricted. I could not afford to uproot my life and live it another way. The movement is escapist, but not in the fantastical way faeriecore is. Modern escapist fantasies take the form of voluntary simplicity; they manifest in tiny homes, tripartite glass windows that let daylight in, screen-free lives where constant stress isn’t the default state. This is a time of perpetually escalating conflict, of an increase in domestic and sexual violence. The need for this escapism in the present political climate of the world has struck a match on women’s repressed rage. Cottagecore is a fantasy that largely excludes men from its aesthetics, their existence an afterthought in the face of its reclaimed domesticity. I have seen people compare cottagecore to The Virgin Suicides (1999), to the regency era, to the 1950s; but the movement has never been about going back to a time where women were arguably more oppressed just for the aesthetic and lack of technology. The rise of the tradwife trend—the traditional wife who prefers to adopt a submissive role in the marriage and advocates for a return to regressive gender roles, called the “virulent strain of white nationalism” by New York Times journalist Annie Kelly—could be tied to cottagecore. However, cottagecore offers domestic bliss without the strict gender roles and patriarchal oppression inherent in it. The intrinsic anti-capitalist sentiments of the movement are a necessary alternative to a quasi-fascist return to traditional hierarchies and an unsustainable neoliberalist way of life.
It is about bringing that ethereal sense of serenity to the present moment, about our innate desire for a system other than capitalism, about achieving a sense of fulfilment outside of responding to work emails and about a life that does not result in an ouroboros of burnout and no land to cultivate but the self.
But maybe one’s longing for less can be connected to their need to be closer to nature. I have seen a prevailing interior design trend of bringing the outdoors indoors to create an illusion of more space. Traditional Indian and Spanish architecture calls for houses to have open spaces—aangan and patios interior—in the middle of them. There exists houses with trees and gardens and marble water fountains in the middle of them, houses rendered to depict the natural world. This disenchantment with modernity can be linked to the Arts and Crafts Movement in the United Kingdom, which arose in a critique of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and called for economic and social reform. It was further associated with arguably trivial crusades like dress reform, ruralism, the garden city movement, and folk-song revival. British artist and socialist William Morris, a founder of the aesthetic movement, advocated for a return to artistic labour and connection with the natural world.
But can such a hypocritical pursuit ever be inclusionary? The people who can afford to bring nature into their homes, who pursue pastoralism through an escape into the countryside, are significantly wealthy and therefore privileged. The change is merely aesthetic; there is no alteration to their ways of living or to the nature of capitalism. It will always be unsatisfactory because true cottagecore requires radically restructuring society to form an inherently classless community.
Cottagecore leaves a lot of room for magic, for the otherworldly, for fae folk with pointed ears and golden skin. But within that yearning for more exist very real opportunities to embrace the movement: you can wear cotton dresses with puffy sleeves to Broadway, you can bake in your tiny city apartment, you can nurture indoor plants, you can AusPost your friends letters with flowers grown on your windowsill. You can aesthetically participate in cottagecore, but more importantly, you can also incorporate its sentiment into your praxis by engaging in mutual aid, in environmental politics, in feminist activism. It is pointless to dream about wildflowers and serenity when you are doing nothing to bring that world closer. It is hard to picture a better world with smoke from the bushfires still coating our lungs, with the weight of the pandemic on our shoulders, with climate grief casting long shadows in front of us. And though all of that gave birth to the movement, at heart it isn’t about running away and hiding; it is about coming together and imagining what the future can be.