From JSTOR Daily:
If there’s a style that defines 2020, it has to be “cottagecore.” In March 2020, the New York Times defined it as a “budding aesthetic movement… where tropes of rural self-sufficiency converge with dainty décor to create an exceptionally twee distillation of pastoral existence.” In August, consumer-culture publication The Goods by Vox heralded cottagecore as “the aesthetic where quarantine is romantic instead of terrifying.”
Baking, one of the activities the quarantined population favored at the height of the pandemic, is a staple of cottagecore, whose Instagram hashtag features detailed depictions of home-baked goods. Moreover, the designer Lirika Matoshi’s Strawberry Dress, defined as The Dress of 2020, fully fits into the cottagecore aesthetic. A movement rooted in self-soothing through exposure to nature and land, it proved to be the antidote to the stress of the 2020 pandemic for many.
Despite its invocations of rural and pastoral landscapes, the cottagecore aesthetic is, ultimately, aspirational. While publications covering trends do point out that cottagecore is not new—some locate its origins in 2019, others in 2017—in truth, people have sought to create an escapist and aspirational paradise in the woods or fields for 2,300 years.
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Memories of Arcadia
Ancient Greece had an enduring fascination with the region of Arcadia, located in the Peloponnesus, which many ancient Greeks first dismissed as a primitive place. After all, Arcadia was far from the refined civilization of Athens. Arcadians were portrayed as hunters, gatherers, and sensualists living in an inclement landscape. In the Hellenistic age, however, Arcadia became an idea in the popular consciousness more than a geographical place.
Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, had become a metropolis of more than a million people. The city was filthy, polluted, and ridden with disease. Its citizens developed what we can now call nostalgia for simpler times. They turned to Arcadia, which came to represent both an untainted, yet benign countryside and the spiritual haven of a simple life.
The Sicilian-born poet Theocritus (316–260 BCE), widely credited as the inventor of pastoral poetry, gave form to this longing for a return to the simple life. He wrote many Idylls, where shepherds and shepherdesses frolicked in nature and engaged in poetic and song contests. Theocritus raised shepherds and country people above their social and cultural status: they speak sophisticatedly, and they spontaneously engage in poetry contests. The target audience for this poetry, however, was the educated urban class who wanted to escape to the countryside while preserving their own refinement: “Theocritus’ shepherds (who seem to spend more time in pleasant conversation and lively love song contests, lying lazily during the resting hour on the grass by a river or spring, under shady trees, than in tending their flocks) move in an atmosphere of peace, quiet and happiness that is far removed from the harsh reality of pastoral life in all times and places,” write the scholars J. Vara and Joanna Weatherby in Mnemosyne.
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But it was in Elizabethan England that the pastoral genre really became in vogue. Shakespeare has two pastoral plays, As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale, whose source material includes the tale of Daphnis and Chloe. As You Like It contains a debate between pastoral and anti-pastoral: one character, the jester Touchstone, feels better at court, while he looks down on country people, while the shepherd Corin defends his own lifestyle. It’s actually not clear who wins the debate. What’s more, Shakespeare’s plays, including As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale, feature aristocrats play-acting being shepherds and falling in love with shepherdesses, but only marry them when they find out that said shepherdesses are abandoned royalty themselves.
Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” is one of the best-known examples of English Renaissance pastoral poetry, with a shepherd inviting his beloved to enjoy a romp in his own version of Arcadia, a vision of eternal spring. It inspired poetic replies from other poets, from John Donne to Dorothy Parker. Quite tellingly, the most famous reply comes from sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), who had the shepherd’s beloved rebuke him, uttering words such as:
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten: In folly ripe, in reason rotten.
She points out, in other words, that the idea of Arcadia is rooted in fallacy.
Pastoral poetry, while detached and elitist in theme and style, is still marked by a sense of community, which is expressed through the form of invitation. “The invitation demonstrates that the pastoral landscape has something to offer, whether it is a rustic feast, country entertainments, or simply a homely cottage in which to rest for the night,” writes the literary scholar Kimberly Huth in Studies in Philology. Huth examines the spoken act of invitation in the context of early modern pastoral poetry, writing:
It acts as the first step in extending that community to others who may be passing through the pastoral world by offering not only a comfortable place to rest but also fellowship and belonging. The pastoral landscape is often imagined as an ideal world of respite from corruption of the court or city, but it is actually the invitation that creates the ideality of that world, which is only recognizable through interactions with other people in the landscape.
Cottagecore too has a strong community aspect, even if its invitations are mostly digital.
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