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At the Core of It

by Julia Merican & Henry Woodland

‘I’ve always envisioned myself one day moving into the woods alone, with my own little cottage to play in,’ YouTuber Hannah Duggan tells us in her recent vlog I’m moving into the woods alone. She proceeds to show us around her new property: moving past two wooden cottages, she guides us through acres of lush greenery, winding cattle-tracks, patches of wildflowers and crops of cherry trees.

Duggan’s video unwittingly gives form to a fantasy with a long tradition. In 316–260 BC, the Sicilian poet Theocritus began to extoll the pleasures of escaping the metropolis in favour of a pastoral idyll. His poems took place in the topos of a “green world”, where shepherds and townsfolk roamed the countryside chanting lyrics. Theocritus’ figures ‘… move in an atmosphere of peace, quiet and happiness that is far removed from the harsh reality of pastoral life in all times and places,’ write J. Vara and Jonna Weatherby. Situating the bucolic in opposition to the complications of ordinary life became a common theme in pastoral literature. Virgil’s Eclogues were written in the countryside after the poet had escaped the violence and destruction in the wake of Julius Caesar’s death; Petrarch’s Bucolicum Carmen relayed the pleasures of the gardens in his poetry of Vaucluse, where he had gone to escape the corruption of the Holy See. This framing continued through Shakespeare, Augustine, Hardy, Emerson and Montgomery.

If these aspirations towards a bucolic idyll are longstanding, they have also seen a recent acceleration. The aesthetic of “cottagecore” is one that has risen rapidly over the past two years — with a significant escalation since the emergence of COVID-19 — largely through vloggers such as Duggan. During the pandemic, with all of us living online even more than usual, the internet became the most readily accessible destination for a lockdown “retreat”. In March 2020, The New York Times defined the trend as a ‘budding aesthetic movement … where tropes of rural self-sufficiency converge with dainty décor to create an exceptionally twee distillation of pastoral existence.’ While wandering through the menagerie of posts on Instagram tagged #cottagecore, one begins to notice common iconography: tea tables, worn notebooks, lilacs, cats, organic vegetables, wicker baskets, and lush greenery. Above all, cottagecore practitioners share the impulse to record their experience of solace, usually through a series of saturated photos and soft-focus film shots.

An uncomfortable relationship between online culture and the natural world underpins the aesthetic. Those posting bucolic images seemingly do so in order to “retreat” from digital culture, even as their lifestyle depends on the internet for its popularity. The urban suffix “–core classifies the trend’s links to a specific community, one forged online through a shared interest. Ironically, the constructed idleness of the subculture therefore survives on its digital marketability.

Cottagecore’s contemporary proliferation therefore resides in its versatility: it is not limited to an archaic rural idiom, but rather cosily adaptable to the demands of popular culture and modern life. Some examples would include Luke Edward Hall’s country life column for the Financial Times, or the Folklore cream cable-knit cardigan selling for £35 on Taylor Swift’s website. Picture ASMR videos of butter knives sinking into slices of blueberry pie; stills from Picnic at Hanging Rock; literally any post featuring Thumper from Bambi. ‘It’s a warm, cosy community full of nature, growing your own foods, spending time with pets, picnicking in the garden. Think Anne of Green Gables meets The Secret Garden,’ says Lucy Blackall, who records her life in rural Oxfordshire on the popular @hercountryliving Instagram account. Blackall’s comment nods to the literary origins of the aesthetic, while simultaneously illustrating its relocation online as a curated lifestyle, even before the pandemic.

The considerable attention garnered by Duggan’s video resonates with the pandemic-fuelled resurgence of the cottagecore aesthetic. Vox reported that last March, ‘the cottagecore hashtag jumped 153%, while likes on cottagecore posts were up 541%.’ It is exquisitely suited to a serene idealisation of isolation, and its renewed relevance neatly coincided with attempts to combat the boredom of staying cooped up at home, just as a new emphasis on the quotidian was already emerging.

Not being able to go out did not stop people from posting snappable moments from their lives. In fact, it encouraged a whole new brand of online content, with everyday mundanities acquiring new virtual capital. Suddenly, dining outdoors Manet-style with your family was a post-worthy affair. Photos of dried roses in modish vases, homemade baked goods, and bespoke candles from people’s living rooms replaced the usual barrage of mirror selfies from dingy club bathrooms, Boomerangs of glasses clinking on rooftop bars, and glossy photographs from fancy events, time-stamped with a photographer’s logo. You learned that a lot more people you knew owned cats than you had previously thought.

In this subculture, the ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ mantra of the social-media era, far from being discarded, is instead served up on a bone china plate with a curlicued doily. Cottagecore is the digital manifestation of an age-old — and simultaneously, distinctly modern — malaise: that of the aspirational fantasy. It is ‘less about a lifestyle and more about the longing for it,’ Rebecca Jennings has written, ‘the yearning that maybe things would feel different if they looked a little prettier.’ It is certainly true that the aesthetic feels imbued in a strange kind of nostalgia. Although the term was coined by the physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, making it only ‘nostalgically Greek’ as Svetlana Boym has wryly observed, the etymological origins of ‘nostalgia’ are cemented in classical antiquity. From the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (sorrow, or longing), Hofer labelled a new emotional state of melancholic love arising from a temporary separation from one’s homeland. What is interesting about the nostalgic tint to cottagecore, however, is that it isn’t a yearning for one’s own home, but, as noted by Paul Quinn, ‘a nostalgia for someone else’s past’.

Amid the simple and genuine urges to make a housebound life look more interesting, there are also sinister connotations to this aspirational trend in our neoliberal present. The inescapable truth is that, like all aesthetic trends, cottagecore lends itself rather too willingly to capitalist exploitation. For something supposed to characterise the return to a simpler life, it is contrarily susceptible to a reinforcement of our consumerist sensibilities: you see people purchasing “peasant dresses” which sell for hundreds of pounds on Anthropologie, attempting to personify a pseudo-cottage life that is in fact expensive and vastly unattainable. Last May, artist Jill Burrow posted a photo of a perfectly laid-out picnic in her garden with a chequered tote bag, captioned: ‘Vacation at home vibes with my @mansurgavriel Italian Canvas Bucket bag by my side #mansurgavriel’, a post that encapsulates this aestheticised commodification of quarantine. Think of all the clothing brands that have profited from this new craze for the pastoral. Imagine, for one, the booming business for rustic, countryside Airbnbs. Jennings observes that ‘capitalism, of course, always finds a way to commoditise simplicity, so that “hygge” no longer means a quiet night in with friends but a $90 blanket; cottagecore, similarly, is a faux-vintage dress from a fast-fashion conglomerate.’ This is a Marie-Antoinette idealism for the privileged class.

The aesthetic does not just have the potential to commodify the bucolic, but also — perhaps more controversially — the sacred interiority it purports to preserve in its supposed retreat from the modern world. ‘The documentary lifestyle of social media raises concerns about how we commoditise ourselves and how we put ourselves up for public display and judgment,’ Jacob Silverman articulates in The Guardian. Cottagecore plays all too well into the broader game of constructed online personalities. Like all other social media users, its adherents are prone to that same brand of narcissism. The subculture’s posts ‘have become less about memorialising a moment than communicating the reality of that moment to others,’ as Silverman has written about the Instagram-era. The rapt — and, most likely, involuntarily housebound — audience is integral for the pastoral myth to sustain itself.

And it is a myth, at least as far as notions of actual “isolation” and the return to a “simple life” without wireless connectivity go: how else would anyone be able to film and broadcast the softly unfiltered videos of baby ducks bathing in flower-strewn basins, or photos of women in floaty dresses staring in dreamy contemplation at a rainbow like a character out of The Beguiled? It is a classic example of life imitating art, raising philosophical questions about our narcissistic and homosocial impulse to share our experiences. Would you arrange that garden picnic so perfectly if you were not planning to post it online, inviting others to partake in the virtual feast? Does the falling tree make a sound if it was not livestreamed on Instagram?

There’s always something ironically suspect about a YouTuber vlogging their restorative getaway from the incessant thrum of the city, or a celebrity posting about their down-to-earth Sunday-at-home while clad in gratuitously expensive leisurewear. Something about it feels dishonest, but no one is quite able to put their finger on what it is exactly — after all, it is difficult to pinpoint a problem that we all somewhat guiltily subscribe to; that would be to suggest that we are all culpable of some level of inauthenticity. Perhaps to engage in social media at all is to sanction this cycle of self-aggrandisement and covetous obsession with other people’s lives. If the content-producers are guilty of artificiality, so too are those of us who consume. Social media makes hypocrites of us all.

In spite of itself, cottagecore promises to be a trend that will continue to enthral. It is, after all, utterly seductive. Who doesn’t want to go off-the-grid, to disappear into a red-brick cottage with a bevy of charming animals and sugar-dusted pastries without access to email or the news? This does not necessarily mean that anybody would actually do so: for the vast majority, a week without Wi-Fi in a modern-day Arcadia would be stifling, more akin to a nightmare than a sought-after idyll. And this fact is what cottagecore depends on: not the idea that everyone will actually relocate to the woods to start a cosy life with debatable bare necessities, but that they never will, and will therefore always want to. The romance of the image will never cease to allure because that is how it will always remain: pixels on a screen, without the blood, guts and mud of the authentic countryside.

JULIA MERICAN is reading for an MSt in English (1900-Present) at St Anne’s College. She hopes to complete this degree so she can convince people to call her ‘Master’.

HENRY WOODLAND is a graduate student in literature at Oxford University. He works as a roof thatcher.

Art by Maddy Clegg


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