Youth movements are always about more than what meets the eye. For example, 1970s first-wave punk wasn’t really just about punk music. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols defined the punk world’s position on harmonics as such: “We’re into chaos, not music.” But it’s not just the appeal of an ideology that sparks a new youth subculture. The most memorable feed off a taboo of the times. In the case of early punk, if the world was tipping toward Thatcher-era conservatism, maybe it was time to put a safety pin in your face and get in the pit.
As expected, there’s a new taboo on the scene, ripe for fetishization. What’s not expected though, is the taboo itself: “The Outside World”. Today, the simple act of being outdoors poses a very real, very mortal threat. So while mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, and encountering collages of young women lying in grass, cradling bunnies, wearing outfits out of Picnic at Hanging Rock – I felt as though I’d found something as illicit as a schedule 2 drug.
The reference here is cottagecore: a visual and lifestyle movement designed to fetishize the wholesome purity of the outdoors, spearheaded by lovely queer teens of TikTok. Gaining initial traction sometime around 2018, its founders imagined and discussed idyllic escape from the endless dopamine trap of digital media and the brutal judgment that accompanied it.
In contrast to the choker-donning eGirl, those worshipping at the church of cottagecore wear traditional, Victorian-inspired dresses – a wholesale dismissal of cyber-inspired everything. Well, not everything – Nintendo’s latest, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, fits perfectly within the calming, pastoral universe imagined by cottagecore devotees.
It’s well-established that most contemporary movements are dependent on social media for growth. So it’s funny that cottagecore is both dependent on it, and simultaneously ignores its existence. It’s easy to understand why. Millennials were the first generation to grow up with the internet, yet Gen Z has led the entirety of their adolescence in a state of constant social media performance. It makes sense that on a foundational level, cottagecore would tap into a taboo familiar to many teens and young adults: To be “disconnected”. To be “unavailable”. To be “off-the-grid”. In 2018, “to be outdoors” was a symbolic act of rebellion. Fast-forward to 2020, and the outdoors are a pipe dream (featuring pink baby lambs, of course).
Gardening, interacting with farm animals, and dancing with a loved one under the moonlight. These classic cottagecore themes eschew digital connectedness in favor of a connectedness to nature. But this isn’t anything new: the movement’s aesthetics are part of a larger visual tradition that peaks in cycles when urban grit, industrialization and the drudgery of daily life demand escape.
In 1854, David Henry Thoreau published Walden, a response to the rapid industrialization he witnessed during his lifetime. In the 1860s, the avant-garde art movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood romanticized nature in firm opposition to the utilitarian ethos of industrialized Europe. Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1880s quickly followed in a further attempt to highlight a human touch when machines continued to replace man.
It was assumed that because we’re living in socially distanced, Zoom-mediated reality, our visual tastes might follow suit. Maybe the increasingly outdated Millennial Aesthetic of the 2010s (frosted pink, potted fig trees, sparkling terrazzo) would give way to something hyper-digital – referencing the synthetic-ness of a life spent online. But to hold up a mirror to our current situation would be too simple. Perhaps the more apt reference is a window into a rarified reality. We revere what we can’t have, and today that looks a lot like what cottagecore celebrates: a taste of nature, the human hand and an aesthetic that soothes us to our very core. Visual ASMR, anyone? Perhaps we could do with some baby lambs right about now.
Amelia Hall is a Brand Strategist working at Deutsch LA. She’s also a contributor to Clickbait.la — an occasional internet culture journal