this is literally just a rant about how much i f'ing hate f'ing cottagecore
I mean it.
You should know that I originally planned this post to be a rant against cottagecore and how much I absolutely loathe, despise and detest the trend. It reminds me of the time I went to the Hamptons with a friend and her mom and they kept talking about how great it was to be in the countryside and I was like, there’s a Brooks Brothers half a mile away. This is not the country.
But plans and rants change. A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a “How to Tell a Story to Save the World” by Toby Litt from Writers Rebel, the writer’s arm of Extinction Rebellion, and it’s taken over my brain. In the 138-page document, Litt deconstructs the “hero narrative” pervasive in storytelling and links the prevalence of this type of storytelling to the fact that we can’t seem to get our shit together and stop climate change. (I promise this will be relevant. Stay with me.)
The hero narrative is basically what you’ll find in every major guide to story structure: you need a sympathetic character and that character needs a conflict. As the character moves against their conflict, actions rise, then actions fall. Badda bing badda boom, you’ve got a story.
In his treatise, Litt argues that as a result of growing up with stories constructed this way, “almost all of us, whatever we do and whyever we do it, regard ourselves as sympathetic central characters.” Whether you’re wearing a face mask on the subway or fracking beneath the mountains of Appalachia, you consider yourself as the central character of your life and you have motivations and a backstory that support and rationalize your behavior. It is this inherited narrative structure that Litt believes psychologically allows the oil business to continue extracting oil, coal people to keep on coal-ing and politicians to go on allowing it all — despite evidence that their actions are creating the conditions for human extinction.
There’s something compelling about Litt’s argument. It’s the answer to the questions: “why does history repeat itself?” and “how can he sleep at night?” and “why the fuck do cottagecore girls think that what they’re doing is meaningful protest?” According to Litt, it’s because we’re all repeating the same self-validating stories.
“The world travels perpetually, and every one is swollen full big with particularity of interest; thus travelling together in pain, and groaning under enmity: labouring to bring forth some one thing, some another, and all bring forth nothing but wind and confusion.”
1651 that was published. 1651. And it feels like the type of thing I scrawl in my journal after a particularly disspiriting day with particularly disspiriting people. I take this as irrefutable proof that people have sucked for at least hundreds of years. Probably more.
And it’s not changing. More recently, the editor-in-chief of TANK, Masoud Golsorkhi, argued that, partly due to travel restrictions, lockdowns and the prevalence of Zoom meetings, “No one is desperately seeking newness; the new finds it hard to be desirable when novelty is so accessible.” (Although it could be applicable to society at large, Golsorski is specifically talking about fashion.)
So if people have always sucked, we’re telling ourselves shitty self-affirming stories and nothing is changing, what hope do we have? Let me approach this, like Golsorkhi, through fashion.
Visual art experienced its most drastic change with the advent of modern art, when the point of making art changed from accurate visual representation to creative expression of thought. But there hasn’t been a major disruption to fashion since women started wearing pants and short skirts (both are symbols of rebellion and thus, an individual self-expression through style was born — this was, not so coincidentally, around the same time that advertisers began using psychology to market goods as lifestyles). So perhaps new fashion can’t emerge until we have a new purpose for dressing. But now that we’ve opened Pandora’s closet of individualism, can style ever be about something other than self-expression? Like Litt’s readers embody the hero narrative, now we’re dressing like we’re the Main Character.
Which brings me to cottagecore, if you will indulge me my originally scheduled rant. How do I loathe it? Let me count the ways…
1 — Cottagecore is a romanticization of a fundamental misunderstanding. (Fetishizing domestic labor isn’t the flex against capitalism that you think it is!!)
1a — One of my great joys in this life is reading about cottagecore girls who were disillusioned with the reality of country living after visiting a farm for the first time. (Reminds me of another favorite thing: the fact that there are psychologists in Japan who specialize in “Paris Syndrome,” a condition [syndromes include hallucinations, dizziness and sweating] that some tourists experience when they visit Paris, city of their dreams, and discover that it is not a magical Disneyland but a real city with homeless people and overflowing trash cans.) Ah, I love this shit!! Glorious!! Chef’s kiss!!
2- Despite beliefs that cottagecore is revolutionary because it welcomes queer and trans people, it doesn’t actually subvert anything about historically restrictive ideas of gendered labor. The visual still screams tradwife (which is, uh, why it’s been embraced by the trads). Perhaps if masc. folx were the ones leading the cottagecore movement or if cottagecore femmes were idealized whilst riding John Deeres and herding cows, I’d be more inclined to believe the trend’s transformative and resistive powers. But a good rule of thumb is: if it looks like a romanticization of gendered labor, it probably is a romanticization of gendered labor.
3- There’s also the whole thread about cottagecore’s relationship with settler/colonialist histories. I’m not going to get into that bc other people on the internet have already done it, I think, pretty neatly.
4- This idea of “going back to nature” is rooted in a digitally privileged life, one in which a person chooses to go off the grid as Thoreau once went into the woods. It fetishizes the lack of access to resources that, for many in the countryside, isn’t a choice whilst simultaneously perpetuating myths that life in the countryside is simpler. (Newsflash: it’s not.)
And now, drumroll please for how I tie this all together…
5- The fantasy of moving to the country and becoming self-sufficient is, like, a near-perfect embodiment of the hero narrative. A character (cottagecore girlie) faces an obstacle (the toil of modern, urban, digital life) and after collecting enough aspirational images of latticed peach pies, finally overcomes capitalism by moving to the country! (Except for the small fact that self-sufficiency is an illusion and we can’t opt out of capitalism.) (We’ll come back to this in a bit.)
Anyway, this rant is becoming irrelevant because the trend is dying down, I think. Thank god. But then there’s that business of cowboy boots. After that, the trucker hats. When that disappears, there will be something else. This gets to my real problem with the aesthetic. These days, smart fashion folx know what they can and can’t appropriate. And they know that they’re not likely to be canceled for plundering the terrain of class. By raiding the emblems of working-class Americana for post-ironic referencing, followers of these aesthetics perpetuate the erasure of class consciousness in American society. The best way to placate the powerless is to turn them into symbols of virtue (which, in America = luxury). It’s the fashion equivalent of a priest being like, “It’s not so bad being poor! The meek shall inherit the earth!” But the meek never inherit the earth. At best, they die with some half-peace knowing that they can’t be held personally responsible for movements of mass destruction and that their image was held to the light as some innocent ideal.
While writing this, I’m thinking of “Tombola” by Ximena Cuevas (2001), one of the most amusing video art pieces I’ve ever seen. The video starts as a Mexican game show and devolves into the sort of messy infighting that reality TV viewers adore: a woman in a short pink dress flashes the camera, a man pins his sexual exploits on a secret younger brother who just happens to look exactly like him, a mother protests that she’s not attracted to her son.
From the noise, Cuevas appears in a straw hat and overalls and takes a video camera from her suitcase. She turns her camera on the one recording her and begins chanting, almost like prayer, “I want to find one person out there who has a life of their own, who is interested in their own life, who has a life of their own, who is interested in their own life, who has…”
Of course, this desire is complicated. In an era of globalized individualism, the questions from “Tombola” take on new meaning. What does it mean to be interested in your own life when we’re all playing sympathetic characters and repeating tired narratives?
Listen…I’m not immune. Throughout my life, I defined myself by the fact that I was Different from other people and Did Interesting And Different Things. But after each Different adventure, when I look back, the path I have taken appears utterly smooth; each wild veer hors-piste turned out to be a paved road. And that’s because I’ve been using other people’s lives as guides. The trips around the world, the rides on backs of motorcycles, the parties and the meetings and the dating apps and even that summer I tried to cook my way through Ottolenghi recipes — all of them were, in some way, repeating an aspect of something that I had seen someone else do. And none of these adventures led me any closer to satisfactory answers about who or how I wanted to be — except letting me know who I wasn’t.
So maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the cottagecore girlies. Maybe it’s only through process of elimination that we learn to develop an authentic self. Maybe we must watch other people and fumble through fantasy recreations of their lives in order to figure out who we really are. If that’s the case, our stories depend on everyone else’s.
In the spirit of seeking new narratives, I’m rounding up styles that are creating something entirely new. (Harder than you might think.) The ones I’ve got on my mind are brands like Fal-ash from Warsaw.
There’s also Hannah Jewett’s bubbly interpretations of intergalactica:
And I’m letting Chopova Lowena slide in here simply for the ingenuity of hanging folkloric pleats from metal jump rings and carabiners. Lowkey genius.
Collectively, we’re seeing a slide towards a Rick Owens-tinged slutty neo-grunge with sleek deconstruction, daring displays of skin and mirrored sunglasses that cover half our faces. The upcoming trends mimic the so-close-but-can’t-touch-it intimacy of social media and digital communication.
On the other hand, this round-up could just be wishful observation on my part. Trend prediction may be a dying art. Maybe, in the future, the only collective trend will be dressing as the niche but main characters we think ourselves to be. (See New York Mag’s recent analysis of weird-girl aesthetic, a “look relies heavily on individuality” while being “keenly referential.”)
All these style niches are individualized revolts against the last gasps of some barely-existent conformist “mainstream.” (Indie is the new pop, if you will.) Individual self-expression — insisting that there is some unique self entirely different from the other selves bumbling around — is the greatest mass trend of our time.
Still, I have this fantasy that one day the kids with the wolf cuts will look up from under their shags and the cottagecore crew will put down their wildflowers and when they gaze across the internet at each other, they’ll find their different styles have been expressing the same thing. It’s no coincidence that fashion has been veering towards the theatrical as more and more people become more and more likely to self-identify as “anxious wreck.” Is performing a self such an anxiety-inducing experience that we need costume or armor to go out in the world?
Maybe commercialized individualism is too enticing a concept to ever put back in the box. And maybe we won’t get rid of hero narratives in our lifetimes. But, despite the onward march of niche existence, I’m still hoping we’ll figure out a way to go from dressing like the main character to dressing like a person who realizes the interconnectedness inherent in simply being alive. Maybe there’s even room for wicker baskets in that far-off utopia.
Okay, that’s it for this round.
I’ll talk to y’all later,