“Begin at the Beginning”: Alice in Cottagecore Land

Searching cottagecore online is like falling down a rabbit hole. You see endless pictures of flowers, dresses, and baked goods until they eventually blur into one aesthetic. Most of the pictures are just that, pictures. They are a version of reality which has undergone extensive editing and prop work. It is a Wonderland, in that it presents these wonderful things while also innately implying that these things and lifestyle are impossible, or more importantly, are indicative of a larger issue. Like Alice found in Wonderland, there is a great complexity to that blur between wonder and reality.

“It’s No Use Now…to Pretend to be Two People! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”

Alice and Wonderland are cottagecore icons, but their connection to that aesthetic category is somewhat complicated. Wonderland is the perfect blend of whimsy and confusion, ideal and impossible, concepts which cottagecore thrives on. In my introduction to cottagecore cinema, I mentioned that cottagecore is frequently criticized for its deluded and even entitled version of nature, and although I troubled this criticism, Wonderland is the perfect example of that delusion. Alice controls Wonderland, or at least she argues that profusely in Lewis Carroll’s novel, repeatedly noting that this is ‘her dream’. But Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not a singular work, it has been adapted multiple times, and Wonderland has been indirectly reproduced in several films. What Alice calls ‘her dream’ is an ever-fluctuating chain of influence stretching across cinema since its first adaptation in 1903. It’s also a public domain work, and thus accessible to all forms of interpretation.

Why is that important to cottagecore? Cottagecore visuals are not uniform either. People take the things they see online and try and make a version of it, depending on where they live and what they have access to. Say one creator makes a wreath out of some wildflowers and then shares it online. Another person sees the picture, but doesn’t see how the original creator made it, and doesn’t have access to the same kinds of wildflowers. She instead uses plastic flowers from her local hobby store, while another person makes the wreath with flowers they are not allergic to. Much like the changing Ship of Theseus, there is a certain point at which the later creator loses track of where the original came from, or what it looked like. Their work is still connected to this original, but it’s an unconscious connection. Alice’s legacy operates along the same lines, but as her network of adaptations suggests, it is important to be as conscious as you can when it comes to influence. To know what you are being influenced by, and how you are interpreting that influence.

“Curiouser and Curiouser!”

Alice is so well known that you could guess the plot without ever reading the novel, or its sequel. The characters live this strange independent life in media, as any woman in a blue dress with a black hairband becomes a reference to Alice. Or rather, a reference to Alice media. Disney is one of the biggest contributors to that legacy, as Carroll’s Alice doesn’t wear a blue dress nor a headband. Disney’s 1951 film made that addendum, and forever warped the way we categorize Alice. But references to Carroll’s icons can also be nuanced, simple as including a strange garden or a croquet match. I have already spoken at length about Alice film adaptations, which you can read here, but I think there is something else happening with the way we visualize Alice versus cottagecore aesthetics. Because most people know about Alice through the lens of adaptation, not the actual novel, they insert things into her narrative that weren’t there to begin with. Alice’s outfit is just one example, as later adaptations continue to drastically rework the narrative and present it as though it is ‘accurate’. The events in the first and second books are generally collapsed onto one another, meaning that events and characters which weren’t connected prior become interwoven. In this collapse, other characters and events are placed into Alice’s Wonderland, and these typically work because Wonderland is such a strange place.

Wonderland reflects Alice’s reality, and although it parodies and warps this reality, it is always connected to that plane. She visits tea parties and a Queen, features which could have been abandoned had Wonderland been a more abstract place. But it isn’t that detached, as there needs to be something familiar for that familiar to be wrong. A bait before you can switch, if you will. Of course, we don’t live in a Victorian society anymore, so our familiarity has begun to influence later Wonderland projects. Even adaptations which are set in the Victorian era feature modern diction and are often meant as a commentary on our current world, not Alice’s world.

Take the 2010 adaptation from Tim Burton, which establishes that Wonderland and childhood overlap, as it’s a place that both Alice and modern audiences experienced while growing up. Alice must contend with her childhood and this world before she can accept herself and fight against real-world institutions, specifically, as this is a Burton film, the kinds which thrive on mediocre conformity. None of these features are in the original novel, but they still work because Wonderland becomes whatever you need it to be. Burton’s film targets audiences who grew up with Alice movies and have that familiarity arriving at the film. It isn’t just an adaptation of Carroll’s work, it is an adaptation of the later reception that work received, as even Alice believes that Wonderland was a story she heard as a child. The film argues that returning to your childhood is beneficial because you weren’t fully engrained in the troubling and controlling institutions that surround you as an adult. It is a space where anything is possible, and the snippets of reality that do appear are fun or bizarre because, as a child, you don’t always understand what is happening around you. Cottagecore is drawn to this seemingly uncontextualized freedom, where logic and institutions are disturbed or even rejected. Yet, as I have already implied, this approach is worrying because it’s against what Carroll’s text argues. Carroll’s novel focuses on Alice’s need for clarity and her frustration with Wonderland, and its strange somewhat familiar logic. Anything is possible in Wonderland, but at the same time, it is also an ongoing commentary about Alice’s world, like Burton’s film tries to be. A purposeful and critical rejection, which cottagecore could integrate rather than just abandoning politics to live in the woods.    

“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

There is a scene in Carroll’s text where Alice finds herself in the White Rabbit’s cottage. He has mistaken her for his housemaid, Mary Ann, and Alice just goes with it. She has already spent much of the novel unsure of who she is, and so she is fine with supplementing other identities onto herself. Regardless, the White Rabbit asks Alice to retrieve his gloves and fan, but once inside, Alice notices a bottle which reads “Drink Me”. Having not learned her lesson from earlier eating a cake with “Eat Me” printed on it, Alice takes a swig and begins to grow. Her limbs burst through the windows, trapping her inside. By outgrowing the cottage, Alice also becomes imprisoned by it. When the White Rabbit discovers her like this, he decides to burn down his own house and kill the monster. Alice escapes by throwing rocks that transform into little cakes that help her shrink again. The second Alice stretches beyond the confides of the cottage, she became a threat. More so, Alice was sent for a fan and gloves, and her weapon transformed into cakes, all of which are fixatures in modern cottagecore aesthetics.

This sequence feels like a commentary on Alice’s position in modern cottagecore, as she extends past the cottage while also being stuck inside that location or term. She exists in other genres and works, like horror and science fiction, but she is also intrinsically connected to this cottage environment. Alice takes up so much room that you can’t step over her in the cottage, she is everywhere. She becomes a part of it, but that combination is also unsettling. The White Rabbit, who is frequently read as a symbol for seeking knowledge in strange places (i.e.: falling down the rabbit hole), is immediately afraid of Alice because she has invaded this lovely place. Her size threatens the stability of the cottage, as rooftiles begin to fall and her foot bounces inside the chimney. Should she stand up, the whole cottage would tumble. Multiple characters try to murder Alice in the novel, but this is one of the only times where the attempted murders don’t know who they are trying to kill. The White Rabbit assumes Alice is Mary Ann, someone who is notably absent in the novel. His gardeners Pat and Bill assumes Alice is some terrible monster. Alice’s fluctuating size is thus just one of the ways Carroll’s text suggests that Alice is unstable, as both her name and form are volatile.

My image of Alice in cottagecore is somewhat Gothic and bizarre. It’s sort of like the classic 2006 Monster House, where (spoilers) the ghost’s body is stuck under the house’s cement, or like a classic Edgar Allan Poe where the woman is inside the walls. It feels like Alice never left the cottage. That she died there, and her skeleton fused with the building. It became the long archways and ceiling planks, forever surrounding the other objects inside the cottage. We often talk about what is featured in a cottagecore house, and what it looks like, but not nearly enough on what it is made from. Is there a degree of danger in that inclusion, as the Rabbit feared? Perhaps. I think it’s important to remember that the White Rabbit was afraid because he didn’t know who or what Alice was. He misidentified her, and when she became so intrinsic to his house, the place where he keeps precious things like his gloves and fan, he didn’t understand what that said about him. It’s important to identify the chain of influence which characterizes cottagecore aesthetics. As I insisted in my introduction to this term, it’s vital to be critical of what you consume because you can never be sure how deeply it will impact you. Like Alice eating and drinking because the food told her to.

“If there’s no meaning in it…that saves a world of trouble…as we needn’t try to find any.”

As a visual category, cottagecore is equal parts innovation and inspiration, and that later is just as deserving of attention. There are countless lists online of cottagecore films to inspire you, but these lists often neglect to mention why these films feature nature or even what the roots of these narrative are. Alice influences the very language used to describe cottagecore whimsy, from the billowy dresses and tea parties to the strange libraries and pocket mints devoured along the way. And as Wonderland implies things about reality, so too does cottagecore. While cottagecore installs this impossible and occasionally troublesome version of pastoral nature, the impulse to create that version of nature is still connected to our broader socio-economic world. A rejection must have something to reject, and that seesaw logic is straight out of Wonderland. On a path to discover her own name and size, Alice becomes the ultimate surrogate, adjusting to whatever her environment decides she is. Her legacy in film follows that model, again turning Alice into different things in each film. In cottagecore, people pretend to live like Alice, to journey about gardens and attend tea parties. But, like Wonderland, this presentation should be contextualized and viewed critically. Wonderland might abandon logic in moments, but it leaves a chaotic trail of satire behind. Its characters act contrary for contrary’s sake, and that rejection of normative orders is political.  

“Call it what you like.”

It’s simple enough to find Alice references in things, and I use her just as an easy example of that reference phenomenon in cottagecore. She is not the only influential figure, but she is certainly a predominate one. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by Alice or Wonderland, in fact I fully endorse it. I am merely suggesting that Wonderland has the potential to be something great in your work and life and understanding where it comes from just makes it more wonderful.