On Saturdays, Jesca knits. Maybe she’ll go to the farmer’s market for some fresh fruit (she recently baked some delicious heart-shaped strawberry pastries) or try a new craft, like beeswax candle-making. She wears long billowy dresses in floral patterns with puff sleeves and spends her free time reading with her cat and tending to her plants. On Instagram and TikTok, where she shares images of her rosy-tinted life, her followers look on in wonder, asking if she lives in a forest cottage somewhere in Europe, or Middle Earth.
“I live in very hot, humid Orlando,’” she says with a laugh. “Pretty much the swamp.” But Jesca Her, a 25-year-old student, has amassed a following of more than 200,000 on TikTok because she makes Central Florida seem like a fairy tale. She’s an influencer of cottagecore, the soothing, escapist aesthetic dominated by meadows, teacups, and baby goats.
It was 2018, on Tumblr, when the bucolic scenery that had proliferated on the platform for years earlier was finally christened with a suffix. “Cottagecore” is just one of dozens of iterations of movements fetishizing the countryside and coziness over the past few hundred years, and yet the glaringly obvious irony is that it is the first that has existed almost exclusively online, posted and participated in through a smartphone from cluttered apartments or suburban bedrooms.
Here is what cottagecore looks like: It is doilies, snails, and DIY fairy spoons crafted from seashells. It is illustrations from Frog & Toad, stills from Miyazaki movies, two girls kissing in a forest in springtime. It is a laughably arduous tutorial on how to make homemade rosewater whispered to you in a British accent. It is eyelet blouses and soft cardigans and hair ribbons and too much blush. It is Beatrix Potter, The Secret Garden, Miss Honey from Matilda, the Shire, the emoji. Taylor Swift’s indie rock quarantine album Folklore? Cottagecore. Taylor Swift’s angry revenge album Reputation? Not cottagecore.
“I’ve always liked baking and cooking and doing what my friends and my family would say is very grandma-like,” Jesca says. “Even my grandma tells me, ‘You’re more of a grandmother than I am.’” There is a word for that, too — grandmacore — but Jesca had never heard the term “cottagecore” until she joined TikTok. To be fair, cottagecore is just one of an ever-expanding universe of hyper-specific aesthetics proliferating online: There is meadowcore (cottagecore but just the meadows), frogcore (cottagecore but just the frogs), goblincore (cottagecore but with mud and foraged mushrooms and gender-neutral clothing), and dozens of others even the most online young people have probably never heard of.
Yet cottagecore has been the standout aesthetic of 2020 for the same reason that everything else happened in 2020. When the pandemic hit, idle homemaking became less escapism and more like an inescapable reality. Cottagecore under lockdown, then, became a way to spin the terror and drudgery into something adorable — and interest in it directly correlated to how bad it became outside.
“Every time there’s been a spike in cases, there’s a spike in cottagecore right along with it,” says Amanda Brennan, a trend expert at Tumblr. From early March to early April, the cottagecore hashtag jumped 153 percent, while likes on cottagecore posts were up 541 percent. As the seasons have changed, so has the content: In April, at-home activities like cooking and embroidery were popular; by June and July it was sunny wildflower fields, twee picnics, and lily pads.
The sentiments are “wistful, longing,” Brennan says of the commentary on cottagecore Tumblr posts. “Like, ‘Man, if only I could have this.’ Even if it’s not joy because you’re there right now, but, ‘Just looking at this thing brings me joy and this is what I need right now.’”
That the subculture mostly exists digitally is not the only irony inherent in cottagecore. Though much of the aesthetic is influenced by fairy tales — the bucolic landscapes, fascination with tiny animals — Paul Quinn, director of the Chichester Center for Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction, quips that “It’s tricky to see how cottagecore has anything to do with fairy tales at all. The countryside and woodlands — they’re not safe places!”
In the early 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm were writing Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella, the stories were filled with grotesquery, body horror, rape, and cannibalism, often taking place in scary forests and cottages that were actually death traps. It wasn’t until later in the century, during the rise of Romanticism, that they were sanitized for children.
Romanticism, not fairy tales, is the real influence on cottagecore: “If you look late in the 19th century at William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, it was a response to the Industrial Revolution,” Quinn explains. “It’s a recall of the medieval era, this idealization of nature and Arthurianism — it’s a nostalgia for someone else’s past. There’s a notion that life was better back then, even though it wasn’t. They’re places you wouldn’t want to live because there’s no internet access.”
It’s not terribly difficult to connect the social, political, and economic upheaval of the Victorian era with the tumultuousness of the past decade. But instead of longing for our own past, Americans are drawn to the landscapes of European fairy tales because, well, we don’t really have any of our own. “Americans don’t have a medieval period, you have an imported medieval period,” Quinn says. “If you look at Disney, when he attempted to create an original American fairy tale, he came up with Song of the South, and no one watches that because it’s essentially a paean to slavery. It’s tricky to construct that type of period when you haven’t really got it.”
What separates cottagecore from other nostalgia-based subcultures, too, is that despite its reverence for stories about and images of heterosexual white people, it’s become nearly synonymous with queer people and progressive politics. There are mini signifiers; “cottagecore lesbian” is now a popular identifier online, while goblincore is a favorite among nonbinary people (frogs are also, canonically, lesbians). A significant portion of cottagecore accounts on Instagram, Tumblr, and TikTok also include bios with “Black Lives Matter” or other social justice causes.
“Unlike reactionary movements like ‘trad wives’ — essentially right-wing mommy bloggers who advocate a return to regressive gender roles — cottagecore offers a vision of domestic bliss without servitude in the traditional binary framework,” writes Isabel Slone in the New York Times. “Cottagecore offers a vision of the world where men are not consciously excluded; they are simply an afterthought.” As one might imagine, very few men show up in searches for cottagecore hashtags.
Evienne Yanney, a 16-year-old in California, says that she discovered cottagecore on Instagram during a period where she wasn’t sure if she liked the way she dressed. Cottagecore attracted her, as a lesbian, because “Many of us aren’t really accepted in the modern world, so the thought of running away to a cottage is really, I guess, kind of soothing.” After responding to a callout on TikTok for cottagecore fans, she joined a group chat with several people, which then blossomed into their own Instagram account. She’s also part of a larger cottagecore Discord chat.
There is an environmental bent to cottagecore, too; many adherents praise the virtues of thrifting and growing food at home, which recalls the fervor surrounding all things cute and handmade during mid-2000s twee. In fact, it’s rare to not exist at the same time as a subculture devoted to a slower, more thoughtful life, or at least a trending word for what to call it: Self-care, hygge, and “domestic cozy” are all recent iterations.
Even before quarantine, brands had started using the aesthetics of coziness in advertisements for things like liquor or shoes that are supposed to make us feel safe and warm. Capitalism, of course, always finds a way to commoditize 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.
In an era defined by anxiety, it’s not particularly surprising that so many recent fads have revolved around self-soothing: ASMR, slime, weighted blankets, fidget spinners, skin care and bath bombs, Animal Crossing, fancy mattresses, hypnotizing food videos. When Taylor Swift released Folklore, a decidedly pared-back record whose official merchandise includes a cardigan, music writers greeted it with arguably the best reviews of her career. (#Cottagecore, of course, also spiked on Tumblr that day.)
Like e-girls and e-boys, cottagecore girls often experience their aesthetic alone, and it’s difficult to point out someone on the street and label them as “cottagecore” like we might with emo or punk kids in decades prior. Most of the fans I’ve spoken with don’t know anyone in real life who’s also into it. Instead, they’ve formed bonds with folks in group chats and comments sections, the true home of nearly all subcultures today.
It’s a delightfully fluid label, just one of many aesthetics that young women can try on or toss out on a daily basis. In this way, cottagecore is a state of mind more so than a style of dress or a purchasable product, able to be tapped into at any time or merged with other interests like witches or fairies.
Elise Schoneman, 21, runs a popular mood board Instagram account, where she posts outfit inspiration and room decor for micro-aesthetics like “Irish countryside,” “honeycore,” or “cottagecore Slytherin.” “I’ve always been really into woodsy aesthetics, even when I was little,” she says. “I grew up on books like Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter, so I’ve always gravitated toward that kind of stuff.” During quarantine, she’s noticed a massive influx in interest in her account; the page grew from 30,000 to 50,000 followers in just a few months.
Elise lives in a place vastly different from the English countryside — Southern California — but that so many cottagecore girls experience the subculture mostly through images and videos reveals another wrinkle in its central purpose: Cottagecore is less about a lifestyle and more about the longing for it, the yearning that maybe things would feel different if they looked a little prettier. (Perhaps not coincidentally, longing is often also a central experience of queer identity.) Implicit in Elise’s mood board posts is the fantasy of living someone else’s life — one if she were a psychology student, another if she were a librarian, another if she owned a “kitschy lil’ B&B” — and the fun of dreaming up a narrative about what it might it be like.
Cottagecore is markedly less dreamy when you consider the realities of a life alone in the woods. “The thing about the English countryside is so many people are desperate to leave it but also so many people are being priced out of it, because people are buying second homes there,” explains Quinn, the director of the Chichester fairy tale center. Indeed, cottagecore ignores the fact that rural areas have always been unattainable for some and inescapable for others. “Taylor Swift is wearing a chunky knit on the cover of her album, but that’s Irish, and most people can’t wait to get off the island,” he adds. “These rural settings, you want to go to them, but then you want to leave.”
That’s what’s wonderful about digital subcultures, though. You can wake up one day and decide to live inside cottagecore, to make tea with honey and stare at pictures of meadows, to mail a handwritten letter to a friend and buy too many plants. But there’s no telling who you’ll be in happily ever after.