Cultivating FreedomThis Year, Cottagecore Exploded—But Excluded Black Women

Photo credit: Ashley Byrd/Unsplash

During moments of extreme stress or anxiety, we often seek out nostalgia to soothe ourselves. It’s no surprise that during a chaotic year, in which we’ve been embroiled in a pandemic, incessant death, and a tumultuous election, many have turned to the sweet, soft cottagecore lifestyle. Cottagecore, an internet aesthetic largely popularized by TikTok, has inspired fantasies of creating a sourdough starter—if you can find yeast—and prancing around in a field wearing a prairie dress. Quarantine life has been difficult for many, as questions surrounding the impact the lack of human touch will have in the long-term arise. It’s an interesting parody: People have embraced an aesthetic that encourages isolation, albeit a comforting form of isolation that’s intentionally cultivated in the great outdoors. Cottagecore is about freedom rather than loneliness.

So it makes sense that cottagecore has made such an explosive return in 2020. If you’re stuck at home with your family or partner for days on end, your mental health may not only suffer, you may even imagine a world in which you’re not surrounded by anyone. Why not dive deeper into solitude? As the pandemic rages, it’s understandable why many have been romanticizing swaths of open land and freshly baked bread. Against the backdrop of hustle culture, weekly meetings, and increasing burnout, there’s a desire to disconnect and commit to a form of labor that provides a form of gratification that capitalism doesn’t. Taking a step back from the demands of real life to bake or smell the flowers can be therapeutic for those who are trying to hang on during these stressful times. After all, being outside provides a sense of freedom that being trapped indoors doesn’t, and choosing isolation feels more empowering than being forced into it. But the aesthetic itself, like many lifestyles, features white women as its face, showing that cottagecore just might not be meant for everyone—or intended to be.

In feminist period films like Pride and Prejudice (2005), Jane Eyre (2011), and Little Women (2019), cis white heroines are lauded for their femininity—or lack thereof—and independence as they traipse through fields alone and build lives that offer a sense of freedom. Meanwhile, these stories so often exclude the Black and Indigenous people who were removed from the land they so happily picnic on and explore. This contrast grows more stark on the internet, a platform that allows us to compare imagery so easily and also has its own history of romanticizing eras where the treatment of people of color and Black people certainly wasn’t great, but it’s more fun to imagine a time of frolicking and ease. Bitch asked photographer and creative Kimberly Douglas about her take on cottagecore as a Black woman. Douglas was motivated to create a cottagecore photo shoot of her own to challenge the idyllic images of white women frolicking in the great outdoors as paragons of peace and joy.

“When you look up aesthetics on Pinterest, they’re always white girls,” Douglas wrote. “White girls are always showcased, and no other race is showcased [in the same way]. You don’t see Black women in soft and dainty aesthetics. They aren’t showcased like that.” Like Douglas, other Black creators are pushing the trend to be more inclusive. Noemie Sérieux, a 22-year-old NYC-based pastry chef, created the Instagram account cottagecore Black Folk in 2019 as a space for Black people to embrace the aesthetic and reclaim its problematic history. “Never seeing women who looked like me in the aesthetic I loved made me feel as if I didn’t belong,” Sérieux says. “I started on Pinterest by making a private vision board of Black women who looked like cottagecore. Eventually, I moved to Instagram and as the community grew, I changed the name from cottagecore Black Girls to cottagecore Black Folk to be more inclusive of our brothers, trans, and nonbinary members.”

Black women adopting cottagecore isn’t shocking given the ways that they have always pushed boundaries, especially on social media. While it’s debatable when exactly this particular aesthetic became a permanent fixture—the trend exploded earlier this year, but its origins reach back to 2018, and as early as 2013, Kinfolk magazine played a huge part in this trend—the desire for softness, joy, and luxury, all qualities often denied to Black women, has led to an increase of Instagram perfect picnics, prairie dresses, sourdough starters, and Black activists using the outdoors to bond and organize. Last summer, Black influencer Paula Sutton’s Instagram account, Hill House Vintage, went viral and Black women praised her for embracing an aesthetic that has largely felt unavailable to them. Her Instagram feed proudly features photos of Sutton dressed in warm cream sweaters and colorful chiffon skirts, having a tea party in front of her England cottage. As white women offered unnecessarily harsh critiques of Sutton’s work, it became even more obvious that Black women doing anything considered soft, dainty, or gentle can raise the hackles of anti-Black viewers.

Why is our knee-jerk reaction to challenge everything Black women do? Did we have the same level of concern when white women were frolicking about?

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Although cottagecore has become popular with Black people, there are also detractors who question just how radical it is for Black people to carve out space in such a heavily whitewashed lifestyle. In tweets and Tumblr posts alike, some have criticized the aesthetic for promoting colonization, referring to cottagecore as “plantationcore” for its relation to Antebellum period aesthetics. The frilly dresses and bright flowers are symbolic of an era built upon white-supremacist ideology that glamorizes pastoral and settler living. It’s difficult to deny the concern of trends, fashion or otherwise, that look constantly to the past as a source of inspiration—even more so considering the way the past has been so violent to Black people.

Sérieux points out that while she understands those who are critical of cottagecore, it’s worth questioning the obsession with wanting to shame Black women and other women of color for participating. Why is our knee-jerk reaction to challenge everything Black women do? Did we have the same level of concern when white women were frolicking about? “Black history doesn’t only consist of the transatlantic slave trade,” Sérieux says. “We need to stop looking at our ancestors as just victims of that era and realize that Black people have lived all kinds of lives all over this planet long before and after these eras.” While cottagecore is reminiscent of settler colonization, its roots aren’t entirely shrouded in whiteness. Lifestyles such as this have always been with us throughout various eras around the world: Farming, gardening, and bread laced with herbs aren’t regulated representations of whiteness; in many Black and Indigenous cultures, this kind of lifestyle is a way to cultivate our own connection to the Earth that prioritizes protecting the land.

Black folks have always had a strong connection to rural spaces (check out Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade or Prince’s love letter to the Midwest), and this is especially important at a time when many Black farmers are fighting to survive. “Cottagecore is a return to your roots, whether they’re in the Bronx, Haiti, Nigeria, or Alabama. If you look far enough, you’ll find that simple cottagecore lifestyle,” Sérieux says. “This aesthetic offers Black people an opportunity to see a life of harmony with themselves, their community, and their environment.” For Sérieux, and other Black cottagecore fanatics, the aesthetic is a reclamation that provides hope in the face of systemic racism. Black women should be free to explore cottagecore on their own terms, within a space that neither defines nor limits their imaginations. We deserve to be able to safely and confidently enjoy the freedom of the outdoors.

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by Yannise Jean
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Yannise Jean is a writer based in Brooklyn, covering wellness, pop culture, and politics. Her writing has appeared in Okayplayer, Well + Good, and Elite Daily. She is always found with iced coffee and a book in hand. You can follow her on twitter @yjeanwrites.