Living in a Fenced Garden: The Practicality of Cottagecore Cinema

Introduction for August

You see a cottage covered with wisteria, its vines hover in the wind. The petals twist into a little tornado that passes through the garden and stops by an old elm. The house has a thatched roof, with a long brick chimney that creeks when it settles. Inside, you gingerly arrange the flowers from your apron and set them to dry upside down. It’s time to make bread and stew, before embroidering by the fire. What I have just described is cottagecore, an aesthetic category popular on apps like Instagram and Pinterest. It’s largely defined as an idealized pastoral lifestyle, not quite returning to the past, but certainly turning away from certain elements of modernity. It is not a specific style nor fashion, more of a scattered definition which anyone can apply to the feeling of a warm cup of tea. It’s entirely based on emotion, and so it can widely vary depending on person and climate. It can even exist inside a city, like a sanctuary nestled between two skyscrapers. However, this whimsical nature also opens cottagecore to multiple valid criticisms. It defends an idealized lifestyle, where problems are minimal, like running out of molasses or having a clumsy rabbit eat your herbs. Cottagecore is appealing because it creates these impossible visual worlds, especially in film. So where does the line between impossible and naïve lie for these films, their reception, and the genre at large?

Cottagecore is largely popular with people who cannot live in a cottage. It is fostered by city dwellers who dream about a beautiful world that they can never access, or only have limited contact with. This elusive quality makes it appealing and cinematic. Because cottagecore is a visual category, and not something everyone can experience firsthand, much of what we define it as comes from movies. People watch the films and then try to find styles and decoration that looks similar and integrate those with the setting they already have. These films don’t have to take place in a cottage, as their reception doesn’t limit itself to that space, but they are often situated around the countryside. Some prevalent features include vintage clothing and objects, nature, art, and little problems. What do I mean by little problems? Well, little events, minimal things that still make a difference. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), for example, is often cited as a cottagecore film, as Kiki works for her community, travels around beautiful vistas, and learns to accept herself and take strength in who she is. While it’s a delightful film, nothing vast happens. Little details and personal touches become as relevant as any monumental event. The film treats friendship with the same dedication and admiration as a different film might treat saving the world. It recognizes that minimal and monumental events are different, but also implies that they are equally important. Like other Studio Ghibli films, meaning derives from both narrative and style, and that style is as influential as the narrative’s morals. Spirited Away (2001) takes the time to show its protagonist adjusting her shoes and walking down a staircase, because these moments inform the audience about what kind of character she is and the way she interacts with this strange world. Not everything is a huge event, sometimes the smallest detail conveys who we are. Side note, Kiki is a witch, which (which witch is which) is another predominate element in cottagecore. There is something about living in a cottage and growing herbs that immediately translates to being a witch. If we are being honest, it is also my current retirement plan.

You’ll notice that Kiki’s Delivery Service is somewhat modern, but it does feature a few vintage dresses, which are arguably as important to cottagecore as its garden. Practical dresses with pockets, still pretty, but breathable and washable are crucial to cottagecore dreams. Like everything else in this category though, cottagecore doesn’t have a specific dress or garb, just something either practical or whimsical that disregards the current fast fashion world. Films like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Sense and Sensibility (1995) feature lovely dresses while also drawing our attention to the maintenance involved with these outfits. How much a new dress and ribbon costs, the dirt that accumulates when you walk through the rain or a damp field. It is not effortless, rather the effort is what makes it admirable. There is a degree of involvement with everything in cottagecore, whether it’s treasure hunting in thrift stores and Etsy or even watching these films for ideas. But more than that, there is a political awareness in certain branches of cottagecore that I appreciate. In turning away from modern industrial practices, cottagecore encourages a few different kinds of rejection. The way you define cottagecore is ultimately flexible, as is what it rejects. That flexibility, however, does have its downfalls.

Certain critics argue that cottagecore is problematic in two major ways. First, it often focuses on the acquisition of land, specifically a return to nature. That sentiment is colonial and ignorant, and often undermines the work that goes into farms and the history of the countryside. You can’t just wander into the forest and claim to live there. Cottagecore is additionally very white in its most popular iterations. It’s not exclusively so, there are many diverse creators working within cottagecore, but these creators are often criminally overlooked online. This criticism is thus entirely valid, and many, including myself, must educate ourselves about where this aesthetic is coming from and how it’s operating. It’s essentially taking land, pretending that it is something that it is not, and neglecting to include the actual labour and history involved with this land, substituting it with a magical unpolitical realm. I love how films like Pride and Prejudice depict imperfection and dirt in daily life, but I also recognize that its characters are privileged white people who are celebrated throughout the narrative, and the conflict they encounter is readily settled through this privilege. That brings me to the second critical issue, the apparent anti-politics in cottagecore. I mentioned prior that cottagecore is often deemed ‘an escape’ from the larger problems in modern society. Yes, that can be your average 9 to 5 job, as Dolly once sang, but it can also be the kind of issues we should be paying attention to. The movements happening in our world right now, not just a version of history that we have seen in film.

Considering this critical stance, which again is entirely valid, I would like to emphasize that  cottagecore has the potential to be varied, as there is no one definition or creator. There are creators right now who are acknowledging these things, producing great critical work and art, and are inspired by more than just white definitions and films. They are taking this term and making something with it. I mention this because neither this criticism nor cottagecore are new. The 18th and 19th century Romantic movement also dreamt of moving away from the industrial revolution to some impossible version of the countryside, where they could wander about and never work, just enjoy nature. There is a whole artistic movement in those same centuries where peasants are depicted on farms with the specific intention to show the elites that peasant were happy where they were, that they had no ambition or need for a revolution, and that they were tied to the earth, often in the same colours as their environment. The elites began dreaming about this happy space, again, a space which never existed and was a political invention. Marie Antoinette build Hameau de la Reine as an escape from palace life, where she visited with friends and farm animals, potentially even gardened, and got dirt under her fingernails. But Antoinette could walk away at any point, and the real work was done by her servants, the ones who actually maintained the garden and dusted the house. Hameau de la Reine was one of the reasons peasants hated Antoinette, because her attempt to understand what the Enlightenment was suggesting about nature, was entirely ignorant. It was a play version of reality, like a theme park. There are some contemporaries who treat cottagecore in this way, essentially acting as Antoinette castoffs. I don’t mean to invalidate their work, just to again emphasize that the ultimate cottagecore is an ideal, not a reality. Romantic poets were criticized for the same reasons and continue to be in modern reception. Poets like Wordsworth blended women’s bodies with nature, idealized both, and then complained that neither would pay attention to him and that he didn’t have access to either of their bodies. I mention this because the cottage lifestyle, even before it was called cottagecore, has always been political. The mere refusal to involve yourself in modern politics and events is a political statement, as is the need to escape modernity. So where does that leave us now?

I have already revealed my bias when it comes to this topic. I am really drawn to cottagecore, knowing full well that it is impossible and the image of it requires labor. Someone must garden every day for the cottage to look the way it does. Someone must make the dress for there to be pockets. The land isn’t there for your ‘escape’. These things don’t just appear. Neither do the films which so inspired the movement, they took years of research and rendering before they arrived to you. Think of the time it takes to make a Studio Ghibli film, where everything single element and tiny character note is designed. Cottagecore characters in film are interested in labour, but that doesn’t always translate to the viewer, who just wants that lifestyle without the work. I use Studio Ghibli as an example because their female protagonists are often level-headed and practical, the kind of people who do the work to afford these vistas. I did a post a while ago about Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and how she refuses to take short cuts while also recognizing and rejecting the sexist society she lives in. She chooses to stay as an old woman because people stop sexualizing her and she can get on with things. I think that version of recognition is where cottagecore can grow, moving forward. There is no need for cottagecore to be ignorant, you already doing research to decorate your house, go further. What is the history of this land, of this item, of this aesthetic? Can it be blended into other aesthetic groupings? Absolutely. Does it have to fit one culture, race, or landscape? No. Make of it what you will but do so critically, consciously, and respectfully.

For example, I watch a lot of historic fashion videos these days, because although I cannot sew, I am really interested in the skill and time it takes to make these dresses. The different kinds of seams and the long history they come with, a history which you can never fully remove, nor should you try. Every time you sew a certain stitch or position your garment in a specific way, it comes from something, and carries that something along with it. There is research involved with each garment, even before the labor begins. Just learning about where the materials came from, and how other people have used them. This approach extends beyond the way you create to the very products you create with. Did you know that in the Victorian era, old underwear and clothes were repurposed into pages for novels? So, the novels we would now classify as ‘classics’ were sometimes written on condensed rags that the poor were forced to sell to survive. That means that some of Charles Dickens’ work, particularly those where he villainizes the poor, were printed on byproducts of poverty. The material reflects onto its subject, and that is something everyone should know, especially those studying English. The materials we use, and have done, come with a history, and although it might be difficult to learn about these things, both emotionally and literally (as information is sometimes suppressed or lost), it is crucial to do so. Many of the techniques used in cinema, for instance, even the language of cuts and frames, were born from extremely racist and sexist films. What do we do with that? We learn and make it into something more than what it was, knowing what it was.

Not everyone making cottagecore today is absolutely useless in modern society, some just like to dream about a world that doesn’t exist. Or, better still, they make that world more practical. They decorate their apartment with embroidery pieces and make bread when they can. Maybe they try to make their own fashion to get away from the fast fashion trauma we are currently inflicting on the earth. Thinking critically about our world, and the environment, is crucial, and so cottagecore is perhaps an educational opportunity. A term we use to define something entirely varied and which eventually boils to the feeling it leaves us with. An appreciate for nature, but also the labour involved with helping nature. I believe that cottagecore can be a breath of fresh air amid a terrifying world, not an escape, a respite and then work.

I am spending the rest of August examining some quintessential cottagecore films and detailing why they present nature and society in certain angles. I have discussed a few Studio Ghibli films before, so I may focus on other films. I also want to preface this ongoing discussion by noting that my introduction above is not an absolute definition of cottagecore, just what I have experienced and seen in this category. My understanding of the topic will likely change, even as I research these upcoming posts. Regardless, I hope you tune in as I continue to analyze this genre.

*I highly recommend this article by Leah Sinclair on Black women in cottagecore.

If you are interested in historical fashion and cottagecore, I also recommend Sewstine , Bernadette Banner, Rachel Maksy, and Essence.

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