Recently I’ve spent more time than I would have expected, especially during a pandemic, discussing with my wife a suddenly, surprisingly pivotal question for queer couples like us: Which one of us would don the pink strawberry dress, and which would wear the black? One evening, we got on Zoom with our friends and she posed the question to them, because we still couldn’t decide. Despite everything else taking place in the world, this $490 designer dress continues to hold our attention. Why? I, like many others, first discovered Lirika Matoshi’s iconic strawberry dress—called the “dress of the summer” by Vogue—on cottagecore TikTok earlier this year, months after model Tess Holliday wore it to the 2020 Grammy Awards. The hashtag #strawberrydress currently has more than 17 million views on TikTok and 24,000 posts on Instagram; Google search results for it spiked in July and August. It has been Photoshopped onto Harry Styles and embraced by a wide variety of fanart creators, especially those working in anime styles.
There are hundreds of iterations of fictional characters like Korra (Janet Varney) and Asami (Seychelle Suzanne Gabriel) from The Legend of Korra and Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) and Marceline (Olivia Olsen) from Adventure Time, with one person wearing the original pink strawberry dress and the other wearing a complementary black version, especially LGBTQ couples and relationships between two queer women. The strawberry dress has gained popularity as a queer dress for the exact reason my wife and I discussed—it’s the perfect contrast fashion item for a couple. Fanart for a black version of the dress was so popular that the designer released a black version in late August. “Be my girlfriend: You buy the pink strawberry dress and I’ll buy the black,” could almost be a 2020 pickup line. The choice to obsess over a frothy, glittery, midi-length tulle dress during a global pandemic seems bold, but it preoccupies us precisely because it’s such a far cry from our current reality of sweatpants and face masks.
“The strawberry dress has an opposite energy from the neutral lounge sets and slippers making up everyday life, so it feels refreshing when compared to 2020’s otherwise utilitarian trends,” explains Gina Escandon, beauty and culture editor at Her Campus Media, where she covers Gen-Z trends. Escandon connects the strawberry-dress hype with the rise of cottagecore, an aesthetic that gained popularity on Tumblr and TikTok beginning around 2018. Cottagecore is a romanticization of living in the countryside: drifting through fields of wildflowers, harvesting your own food, knitting, wearing soft, vintage clothing. The pairing, in Escandon’s words, is “a perfect balm when the world is bad and destructive.” The LGBTQ community has been particularly receptive to cottagecore, seeing in its imagery an idyllic safe haven away from capitalism and the constraints of a white supremacist, cisheternormative society.
Though it has been critiqued for being whitewashed, cottagecore as a concept is the perfect escapist fantasy: While the reality of making your own bread from scratch isn’t for everyone, the idea of running into the woods with nothing but your girlfriend and chosen family is universally appealing, particularly when you’re living through “unprecedented times” amidst people who refuse to take precautions as simple as wearing a mask in public. Cottagecore as a whole, and the strawberry dress in particular, represent a cozy alternative reality during a time of widespread longings: of returning to pre-pandemic times, safe with our chosen families, of being yourself in a society that wants you to hide parts of who you are, of having a reason and a place to wear a fancy dress. Isolation from typical society wrought by lockdown and social distancing has led many people to come out as LGBTQ or more fully express themselves in ways that are affirming and euphoric—whether it’s having the courage to ask friends to start using they/them pronouns or telling your crush that you like them.
Simultaneously, however, the realities of COVID-19 have also been dangerous, especially for those who have had to return to living in unsafe home situations without the crucial access to queer and trans community they might have depended on pre–social distancing. “Being able to escape into this cottagecore lesbian fantasy for a bit with one dress is the perfect way to reclaim space,” says Ama Scriver, a freelance journalist covering body image and fashion for Refinery29 and Greatist. Unfortunately, there are limitations to this fantasy, even beyond the obvious $490 price point. While fanart around the strawberry dress has been fairly inclusive, the majority of people popularizing the dress on social media are thin, white cis women: Scriver explains that the version Holliday wore to the Grammys was a custom made and isn’t available in plus sizes on Matoshi’s website.
“Be my girlfriend: You buy the pink strawberry dress and I’ll buy the black,” could almost be a 2020 pickup line.
“To be honest, it’s actually kind of annoying to see a dress on a visibly plus-size woman that I may or may not actually be able to purchase, buy, or wear,” she said. Gianluca Russo, a fashion reporter and columnist for NYLON, believes that seeing the dress on Holliday was still a win for the fat community, but also notes that it’s a systemic issue that designers often only offer their work to fat people in custom sizing. “Many designers will do plus sizes in custom while not offering it to the general public,” he said. “There are many reasons for this, a major one being that they don’t believe the plus-size customer will want luxury garments, which is a myth currently being proved wrong by brands like 11 Honore and Henning.” The lack of size inclusivity and cost make the strawberry dress only a real possibility for some LGBTQ people.
The price tag has led to knockoff versions of the dress all over the internet, because, according to Aja Barber, a writer and consultant who often covers sustainable and ethical fashion, “People often want to participate in what feels like a moment at any cost.” But, Barber explains, designs reproduced without permission hurt independent designers who already struggle to survive in our fast-fashion society. Despite the duplicates, Matoshi told NBC News that sales for the dress increased more than 1,000 percent from July to August 2020. The dress has been available since July 2019, but it didn’t go viral until summer 2020, just as pandemic-related restrictions began to lift across the country, making some people feel like they could pretend COVID-19 was over—and others even more nervous about the future and public health.
The strawberry dress is the queer dress of the summer for the exact reason my wife and I can’t stop talking about who should wear the black and who should don the pink: because we had to cancel two honeymoons that are rescheduled for “who knows;” because many of our loved ones have lost family members, jobs, or stable housing to the pandemic; and because we’re constantly low-grade anxious about my high-risk status. We can’t think about those things all at once without wanting to scream. Why shouldn’t we just wear our strawberry dresses and skip off into the hills of Ireland, never to be seen again? We have to escape—even if only in our minds, and in fashion, via the whimsy of the strawberry dress.