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23 June 2023

The paradox of cottagecore

Influencers want you to think they’re making a living off pastoral pursuits rather than glued to their phones in search of ad revenue.

By Zuzanna Lachendro

It is almost impossible to have an online presence without being categorised as an “aesthetic” or “-core”. The suffix -core, popularised in fashion by the trend forecasting group K-Hole, crept into our daily lives through hashtags as a way to find like-minded individuals on social media. One can no longer like crocheting without being #GrandmaCore, or wear hot pink without drifting into #BarbieCore territory. Certain aesthetics become more popular than others, and consumerism is quick to catch up: fast fashion, homeware and various other trinkets are designed for the overwhelming interest in specific lifestyles.

One of the most popular aesthetics to come out of TikTok is #CottageCore. Videos with the hashtag have amassed 14.3 billion views, making it one of the platform’s most popular. Cottagecore is about the abandonment of urban lifestyle constraints in favour of an idyllic, European pastoral life. But it’s not for everyone: those less interested in midi dresses, baking and handcrafts can explore #LumberjackCore.

Since the term first emerged on Tumblr in 2018, the aesthetic-turned-lifestyle has been characterised by values such as living with nature and a focus on sustainability, domesticity and living off the grid. After enduring the hell of the Central Line at rush hour, I often find myself on the sofa enthralled by these cottagecore videos. I wish I could join these women frolicking through the fields before floating down on to a gingham picnic blanket amid the luscious green hills of the Cotswolds, then tuck into a home-made black forest gateau using our wine glasses. (Who needs a knife to cut a cake when a wine glass can do the job and look #aesthetic?) In my imagination these young women exist in a perpetual loop of picking flowers, growing their own vegetables and tending to the ducks that trot around their gardens. But what happens when they stop recording on their new iPhones?

[See also: Your therapist shouldn’t be on TikTok]

Living “off the grid” to an audience of millions, cottagecore girls are a niche corner of the internet supplying the fantasy of a simpler life that, for most of us, is unattainable. Many tell of their reckless abandon of modernity for a remote cottage in the English countryside. Ostensibly, they live off the land with their home-grown food and miniature farmsteads including, but not limited to, chickens, bunnies and goats. And yet many of these influencers are receiving money from companies. Scroll through cottagecore influencer videos and many have an “ad” hashtag on them, are sponsored, or involve an item disclosed as “gifted”. Some include discount codes for, say, the women’s fashion company House of CB. Others have been sponsored by the likes of L’Oréal and the clothing brand Cider, whose products the influencers use or wear. Indeed, it feels unlikely that home-grown food and animal produce pay the bills, even combined with a small Etsy business.

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Cottagecore influencers’ online presence is paradoxical. No one whose livelihood depends on her online appearance, popularity and marketing can actually live off the grid. Do they really continue toiling for hours over the stove to make mozzarella out of locally sourced milk, far from the watchful eye of followers – and without checking their Instagram analytics? Or do they flop down on to the sofa with a takeaway and scroll through TikTok hoping for the algorithm to work its magic? Does the cottagecore girl live out the slow-living fantasy, or has she succumbed to the performative nature of social media?

As with all trends and aesthetics, cottagecore will go out of fashion. The most prominent evidence of this is #CottageCore’s greatest rival, #Y2K, with the resurfacing of low-waisted jeans, velour tracksuits and baguette bags reminiscent of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Once a new -core seizes the popularity crown, the cottagecore girl will have to abandon the idyllic rural world and transform herself yet again into what the audience, and her sponsors, want to see.

[See also: Is the clock ticking for TikTok?]

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