Is cottagecore a colonialist fantasy?

Black influencers are reclaiming the aesthetic and challenging its whitewashed world.

by Bethan Kapur
24 September 2020, 8:42am

That an escapist aesthetic like cottagecore took hold during 2020 isn’t surprising. You can find aficionados of the bucolic, often queer scene everywhere online, but the aesthetic truly thrives on TikTok, where videos of people foraging for mushrooms and painting daisies on their faces have millions of views. There are wicker baskets brimming with summer berries; delicate cakes covered in fresh flowers; white, mushroom-esque freckle make-up; and pointed pixie-ear filters. What’s conspicuously missing from the fantasy though, are people of colour.

The whiteness of the aesthetic is increasingly drawing criticism, particularly in response to the way in which certain images conjure a romanticised notion of western history.  To some, this is a quaint setting for a tea party in homage to a different era. But for those with ancestors who suffered under colonialism, this visual can represent a much darker history, perhaps, for example, calling to mind ill-gotten tea from China that was used to bolster the British Empire. A video of white women draped in long cotton dresses and wandering romantically through fields connotes something else when your history is shaped by enslavement and exploitation. This is a setting not unlike the fields in which so many Black people were forced to toil.

“There has been a concerted effort to remove people of colour from those histories,” says Henry Navarro, a designer, activist and associate professor of fashion at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “We tend to think of history as this objective selection of facts, and imagine the Victorian era as a white, western, European era, but it wasn’t,” he says. “Classical literature was written by white people, so of course the main characters are white people. But we were right there, in the spices they cook with, the ink they write with, the cotton for their dresses. You never see the characters in movies gardening. It’s a tableau, you just see white people moving through those spaces, you don’t see what’s happening in the background.”

Yla O’Riordan, a 25-year-old of English and Filipina heritage who grew up in a rural area, doesn’t see cottagecore itself as the problem — more so the way that it’s represented online. “The thing that surprised me about it is it’s this kind of humble and down-to-the-roots way of life, made up of really basic, easy, human things to do — but then it’s been adopted by these super-rich kids.” As #cottagecore on TikTok continues to explode, it has increasingly come to signify stately homes, vintage gowns and elaborate picnics over things like baking and, well, frogs.

Yla feels that cottagecore stands out as definitively less diverse than the other similar subcultures online like witchtok, where it’s easier to find people of colour casting spells and hexing the moon. “It really stood out to me as a trend that was just so white. And I think that goes hand-in-hand with how it can come across as incredibly privileged as well. Obviously you can be privileged and not white, but it almost has this unattainable aspect to it.”

Cottagecore may also feel more exclusionary than other trends because of its emphasis on a rural setting, which has functioned as the perfect way to show off your garden during lockdown — if you're lucky enough to have one. Often, that privilege comes with being white. According to the 2011 UK Census, just three percent of those living in rural areas of the UK were from an ethnic minority. Living anywhere as one of just a handful of people of colour can be incredibly alienating, too.

Feeling alone as a person of colour is an all too common experience, even on the ‘great equaliser’ that is the internet. Kimberly Douglas, a 24-year-old Black Instagram influencer, was browsing cottagecore images online when she felt a familiar pang of alienation. She had been collecting images while planning a picnic-style shoot, when she noticed how difficult it was to find an image of a single Black woman in a cottagecore setting. So, she took it upon herself to put a few into the world.

“I wanted to showcase that Black girls can do the soft and dainty look too,” she explains. “Not all Black people are just trauma and struggle.” Black women characters have often been depicted as angry and sassy on mainstream TV — think Laverne from Scrubs or Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty. While there are only a handful of places you can find representations of Black joy, there are countless examples of dramatised Black trauma; whether it’s a slavery epic or a parable about police brutality, Black characters are statistically the most likely to die first on-screen. “It’s a known thing! I know when I watch a scary movie that the Black person is going to die and it’s honestly so annoying,” Kimberly says. “We’re multifaceted and we go through different things; we can be soft and we like picnics.”

Of course, pigeonholing people of colour, particularly Black people, into a narrow aesthetic is a problem that goes way beyond cottagecore. Though it’s a genre she adored growing up, Kimberly always felt underrepresented by fantasy media. “I watched all the Disney movies, even though there was no representation before Princess Tiana,” she says. “But I loved the fantasy and the whole idea of imagination and thinking outside the box.”

Kimberly isn’t alone in her refusal to let other people’s expectations restrict her style. Darcei Giles is the mastermind behind Black Girl Tries, a YouTube series in which she follows popular beauty tutorials that are rarely seen on Black women, like K-beauty, or VSCO girl makeup: “I’ve always been very headstrong about doing what I want, but that always came with terms like Oreo, or being told, ‘You’re not really black’,” Darcei says. “Growing up, that caused a lot of self-hatred in me. I feel like Black women are not included in the ‘softer girl’ looks because stereotypically we’re not supposed to be ‘soft girls’. We’re supposed to be very loud and aggressive and hard, and that’s what we’re supposed to look like as well.”

But Darcei’s efforts to push back against these limitations have not gone unnoticed. “I would get messages all the time from other Black people saying, ‘I was so afraid to try Korean makeup because I didn’t think it would look good on me, but now I buy it all the time,’” she explains. “I never thought that would happen. I just tried something out, and apparently there’s thousands of other people just like me.”

“Trends are not determined by individuals but by society,” Professor Navarro says. “But we can intentionally take up space.” In the same way that Darcei and Kimberly questioned the narrow stereotypes they saw of themselves in the world, we, as people of colour, can challenge what we see in cottagecore. We simply need to put ourselves back in the narrative.