Women in floaty dresses wandering in fields looking faintly plaintive. Lots of gingham. Dappled sunlight. Meadows and flowers. Evidence of baking. Knitting, wreaths, baskets, bustier-style dresses that suggest some traditional notion of a milkmaid. And, of course, cottages.
ou’ve probably seen some, if not all of these, on your feed if you are a user of Instagram, but you may not have realised what they represent — cottagecore, an aesthetic, or way of life that looks back nostalgically to an (imagined?) pastoral lifestyle based around rural living, sustainable values, domesticity and craft.
Most origin accounts of the trend trace cottagecore’s beginnings to 2017, although you could argue that it has been alive and thriving for far longer; Marie Antoinette could be seen as an early proponent of the movement — the original #cottagecore influencer — during her time at The Queen’s Hamlet, a retreat she had built in the grounds of Versailles in the late 1700s. There, she liked to escape from the constraints of formal court life, taking on instead the role of a shepherdess, and abandoning, in the process, the elaborate outfits required in her role as queen in favour of simple dresses.
For our present-day purposes, it was in 2019, fuelled by TikTok, that cottagecore began to properly take off. It’s ironic that a lifestyle which surely favours analogue sympathies finds its main expression on digital platforms. It was the pandemic, though, which saw it really take hold and become something that might leap off the screens of our phones and into a viable life choice for many.
Stuck at home, forced to adopt a slower pace of life, to some extent, at least — although anyone attempting to homeschool while working might demur — suddenly the drawbacks of our former lives were thrown into stark relief. All that rushing about, busyness, cramming — of people into cities and offices and of events into our daily schedules — not to mention the difficulty of trying to buy or rent a home. Did we want to go back to it if this all ended? Might there be another way?
Cottagecore, and its celebration of a life that seemed simpler, slower, and, crucially, more sustainable, suggested there might be an alternative. Not the hackneyed ‘new normal’, but rather an entirely different way of living.
“Cottagecore, at its heart, is this idealised rural life,” explains Cassie Delaney, cultural commentator and co-host with Megan Cassidy of the pop culture podcast Before Brunch. “It’s this idea that life would be better in the countryside, with a quaint little cottage, a vegetable patch, and simpler surroundings. That the key to happiness really is space and Mother Nature.”
For the cottagecore aesthetic, she points out, think of the house in which Cameron Diaz stays in the film The Holiday. “That really quaint little low-ceilinged, old stone cottage. That’s your kind of quintessential cottagecore look. But if we dig deeper into it, you’re going to see a lot of people wearing natural materials — lots of linen, organic cotton — and then you’re going to see so many jars. People making jams, making sourdough starters. It is very much based around the kitchen, making, baking, natural materials, outdoorsy living.”
It gained momentum especially in lockdown as we all turned to crafting and offline hobbies. Who didn’t make it through the last few years without at some point trying to make sourdough, attempt tie-dye, or go for a sea swim?
“Cottagecore got this second wind with lockdown and people being forced to slow down,” says fashion journalist Sarah Macken — whose own beautiful Instagram aesthetic often strays into this territory. “It began intermingling with that other whole movement of slow living; they kind of complement each other quite nicely. It was a whole reaction to Covid-19 and to capitalism, and this world in which we’ve found ourselves entrenched. Cottagecore is, I guess, an antidote to that.”
Delaney says that cottagecore is more than just an aesthetic. “Really, what it is, is returning to a simple way, where you can bring in more idealised, old-fashioned values of creating your own goods, living off the land, trying to live in a sustainable way. A lot of the content around cottagecore is about returning to making your own goods. So you see things like people making their own butter; making their own kefir; making their own sourdough,” She points out the irony involved in this notion. Not just the idea of ‘returning’ to an idyllic past that never really existed but, she says, “I think people are just sticking things under the cottagecore banner because they don’t really realise that the way people lived in years gone by was not a choice.”
While cottagecore is often considered a queer-friendly space, it’s not all delicate, sun-dappled perfection. The trend’s online iteration inarguably celebrates and centres around a white woman aesthetic. And there are other issues. To some, all this romanticising of going back to the land feels like echoes of colonialism. Softly lit shots of people wafting about fields of corn ignore the tough realities of farm life and rural existence. Then there’s the gender issue. It’s hard to ignore that key to cottagecore is a return to domesticity and traditional female roles. What seems escapist can so easily become oppressive.
Aisling Leonard-Curtin is a chartered counselling psychologist and is the co-director of Act Now Purposeful Living. She is also a senior psychologist for ADHD Ireland, and author, with Trish Leonard-Curtin, of The Power Of Small. She identifies the toll the past few years have taken on our mental health, and why it might lead us to long for a real, or imagined, pastoral past that we might recreate elements of in our own lives.
“There’s been a lot of stuff coming out over the last few years in terms of polyvagal theory and the work of Dr Stephen Porges; it’s a relatively new theory. It has kind of has revolutionised how we look at the autonomic nervous system.
“Previously, it was thought that the autonomic nervous system had a sympathetic part, and a parasympathetic part. The sympathetic was the fight or flight, and the parasympathetic was the calming part. What they’ve looked at is that actually there are three predominant states. Dorsal vagal, which developed 500 million years ago, is ‘drain and drop out’, or ‘flop and drop’; that’s the oldest state within the autonomic nervous system.
“‘Fight or flight’ developed 400 million years ago, and then there is the ventral vagal state, the newest state within the autonomic nervous system, which developed 200 million years ago.”
This is the state within which we feel most safe and connected. It’s unlikely to be a place many of us have spent much time inhabiting over the past few years.
“Many people would notice that they’ve been in survival mode for a lot of the past two, two-and-a-half years,” Leonard-Curtin explains. “A feeling of a ‘drain and drop out’ state, or in their ‘fight or flight’ state for a lot of time. So many of us are craving feeling more of that sense of safety and connection.”
Herein lies the appeal of cottagecore. “It’s very likely that at some level people are craving this sense of safety that has been really missing. So, I think it kind of makes sense when we’re looking at some of the new trends to look at it in this way.”
But how does cottagecore translate to real life?
Marketing professional and co-founder of Fetch Coffee Rachel Purcell grew up in a place called Killurney, Co Tipperary, at the foot of Slievenamon. Looking back at growing up with her two sisters, she can appreciate the lifestyle. Lots of time spent outdoors, pony-riding, proximity to her grandparents, who engendered a love of baking. However, as she became a teenager, the appeal of country living waned for a time.
“We’re about a 15-minute drive from the closest town, Clonmel, so you would have been very dependent on somebody driving you somewhere. As a teenager, I resented the fact that we lived so far out in the countryside because, just in the summer and stuff, there was no one really around. You would be relying on your mum or dad to drop you into town to meet friends,” she says.
When she moved to Dublin after college, she found city life exciting. “I was at that age where I wanted to go out, and stuff like that. It was all so new. It was easy to get to places if I wanted to.”
She spent much of the next decade in the city, but when the pandemic hit, and it began to become clear that working from home was here to stay for some time, she and her boyfriend, Kevin, decided to try living in the country again, returning to stay in what had been her grandparents’ home, in the area where Purcell grew up.
“We were both working from home, it was a small enough house that we were in; obviously rent in Dublin is ridiculously expensive, and we realised there’s no actual need for us to be in Dublin at the moment, paying this much rent. We’ll move home, give it a go.
“We thought it was a good chance to do it, see how it was, maybe for six months and then come back to Dublin. We moved down, and everything has changed now, and we’re definitely not going back to Dublin,” she says with a laugh. Now, she has a whole new appreciation for the place where she grew up.
“I love the fact that we live outside of the town. It’s the peace and quiet, beautiful views all around you. It’s very calming.”
She likes the more sustainable aspect of their lives since the move. She buys less, they now have a polytunnel and grow their own food.
“I always felt like I was chasing my tail, like I was always in a rush, even if I had nothing else to do, I was always rushing. Whereas down here I’m so much more relaxed than I used to be. I can do it tomorrow if I don’t get to it today.”
For many, the housing crisis is, of course, a driving force behind a newfound consideration of a move to rural living — making a virtue of necessity, as it were. “I’m a person in my mid-30s who can’t afford a mortgage. In the middle of a housing crisis, of course we’re going to want to look at these beautiful houses in these enchanting, bucolic locations,” says Macken. “Definitely at a time of realisation of, well I’ll definitely never afford a house in Dublin. »
» If, at this stage, I’m getting a mortgage anywhere,” she says with a wry laugh.
Journalist Niamh O’Donoghue grew up in Dublin, although most holidays were spent in various parts of the countryside. She also moved during the pandemic, to Mayo. She had already relocated from London, where she had been living and working, and moved back in with her parents to the house in Dublin where she had grown up.
Then, during lockdown she and her boyfriend were unable to see each other — as they were outside of the respective perimeters — and living at home, as an adult, during such a stressful time, was far from ideal.
“We wanted to figure out how we could live together again without breaking the bank, and there was nowhere,” she says.
They found a place in a small village in Mayo. “It was an ad on Daft, we thought it was too good to be true just because it was a clean house, it wasn’t dark, or moldy,” she laughs. “As soon as we did the internet speed test, we just jumped on it. We have a spare bedroom, which is such a luxury. I really do feel like I’ve won the Lotto. We’ve been able to restore some kind of normality and balance into both of our lives.
“Between working on the computers and then being able to completely switch off and jump into the sea or go on a hike or go jump on a horse, whatever activity you want to do, you have access to it out there. It’s honestly been life-changing. It’s laid new foundations for what future I
She had always thought she wanted to live in a big city, that she enjoyed the go-go-go pace. “But after experiencing that for a few years, that serenity, but also a new approach to working here — that you actually had the ability to work remotely, while still having this high-octane job, but in the most beautiful, serene part of the world, that you’re able to do both – that, for me, was transformative.”
Sadly, for now, she has to go back to London, but she plans to return. “I’ve made the decision to leave due to career progression. This is something that I just have to do for me, for the moment, but my heart is definitely in the West of Ireland now.”
O’Donoghue’s story illustrates the two directions that many young people are being pulled in — choose career over lifestyle or vice versa.
“There is a real anxiety among people at the moment, I think, caused by the pandemic, caused by the climate crisis,” Delaney says. “And what we’re hearing is that the way that we live does not work, and we need to try something different. The appeal is the peace that it seems to emanate. The idea that going to the countryside, being in nature, living at a slow pace, [will] reset your central nervous system and calm you down. I mean it looks incredibly peaceful.”
And what of the escapist nature of cottagecore? Is it a good thing? “In terms of escapism, we also know from a lot of the data underlying acceptance and commitment therapy, that we often try to experientially avoid things that bring up unwanted thoughts and feelings within us,” Leonard-Curtin explains.
“So it’s going to have a very different feeling if we’re actively moving closer towards something that we want to help us to bring some sort of connection in, and that aligns with our values — something that’s important to us — versus if we’re just trying to get away from the way that we don’t want to think and feel.”
As such, a life that embraces some of the values suggested by cottagecore could go some way towards helping us with a sense of safety — something all of us could do with after the past few years.
“It’s really around tuning into ourselves, and what is it that gets these cues of safety. Also what is your value around this time?” Leonard-Curtin asks. “Is it around wanting to ground? Is this a time of exploration, curiosity? It’s worth thinking: by engaging in this action, or this trend, is this bringing me closer towards who and where I want to be at this moment and time, or further away? And if the answer is closer towards, obviously that’s wonderful, and
if its further away, just noticing what is it that you are truly wanting to move closer towards. Is there another way of maybe slightly changing how you’re going about your life that might bring that in a more meaningful way for you?”