WRITING: LUNA ADLER
Can you be nostalgic for what you’ve never experienced? We explore Marie Antoinette and the origins of Cottagecore nostalgia and similarly rootless nostalgia movements through history.
You may know Marie Antoinette as a tomboy-turned-child bride, an unironic advocate of the bouffant, a victim of the guillotine, and the originator of a flippant statement about cake that she likely never uttered. But you’re probably not aware that she could have made the ingredients for the aforementioned dessert herself.
That’s right: In 1783, the French queen commissioned Hameau de la Reine—a small hamlet boasting a boudoir, dairy, windmill, barn, tower, and fisherman’s cottage—to be built at Versailles. While the “queen’s village” was run by a bevy of real farmers and labourers, it existed solely for Marie. There, the queen and her ladies-in-waiting would allegedly don milkmaid gear and mimic the less labor-intensive motions of rural life: milking cows, collecting the hens’ shit-smeared eggs, and humble-bragging about the quality of their freshly harvested produce.
Whether Marie Antoinette actually cosplayed a peasant shepherdess or simply visited the hamlet in order to relax, was her obsession with the rural idyll unrealistic? Absolutely. Was it problematic to reduce the bleak existence of an 18th-century farmer to a dreamy pastime? You betcha. But it’s hard not to admire her dedication to the bit. And it’s not as if the queen’s yearning for a sanitized version of a different life is unique.
Today, Revolutionary War reenactors carry out “battles” without the threat of smallpox, dysentery, or death by bayonet. At Renaissance Faires, attendees forego typical peasant food (i.e. room temperature mush) in favour of royal fare (think: Scotch eggs, large hunks of fried meat, ale). Before COVID-19 hit, the glamping industry was projected to rake in a billion dollars by 2024. If high-concept escapism is a spectrum, Marie Antoinette tends her sheep on one end, while a couple toasts their golden anniversary over the Rainforest Cafe’s Anaconda Pasta and Tribal Cheesecake on the other.
In this illusory realm where fawns, twee picnic scenes, and freshly glazed scones abound, nostalgia is currency.
And while we don’t all have the resources to commission our own villages, a mere 237 years later a small army of millennials are using the internet to follow in the infamous French queen’s footsteps. Since shelter-in-place orders were first implemented, the Cottagecore aesthetic—an online movement fetishizing rural life—has become ubiquitous. On Tumblr, TikTok, and Instagram, sylvan images and videos of gingham-clad women sporting plaited hair beckon the homebound with the siren song of a simpler life. Wouldn’t you rather be foraging in the forest than stuck on Zoom? These Cottagecore luminaries ask as they hold bundles of taupe mushrooms, kneel amongst sprays of wildflowers, and sit between weeping willows. In this illusory realm where fawns, twee picnic scenes, and freshly glazed scones abound, nostalgia is currency.
Lucy Kyselica, a Dutch blogger “with a natural twist,” has nearly 34,000 Instagram followers and populates her feed with foliage-filled, sepia-toned portraits of herself and her pet rat, Diarmuid. Paula Sutton, whose lifestyle was described by the New York Times this past May as “the stuff of quarantine fantasy,” emerged on the Cottagecore scene after opening an account dedicated to Hill House, her enchanting estate in Norfolk, England. Today, her 436,000 fans swoon over images of Sutton drinking tea on the rambling grounds, framed by luscious flower arrangements and often accompanied by her sleek dog, Coco. In one of my favourite videos, perhaps best classified as a visual ASMR of the Cottagecore aesthetic, a woman stands by a lake in a cherry-red dress as wind instruments play in the background. She shakes out her apron. Blinks slowly. Delicately fingers a stalk of corn. Before a plot can be introduced, the video—titled “What A Peaceful Moment!”—ends.
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Now, I’m not a Cottagecore enthusiast myself, but that’s not to say I don’t get it. After spending the first two months of the pandemic trapped in my Brooklyn apartment, I was fortunate to escape to a sleepy town in Wyoming, where my boyfriend and I rented an entire house for a fraction of our NYC rent. In the evenings, we’d stroll the quaint streets, musing over which home we’d choose if we relocated permanently and how little time we’d have to spend working.
“You’d love it,” my boyfriend would say. “You’re made for life in a small town.” It took him a few tries before he could deliver the line with a straight face, but after a while I had to admit that the idea was not entirely repellent. I felt like I could think again. Errands were jaunts, not journeys. My days were littered with large, blank swaths of time. I alternated between suspecting that I was slowly going mad and feeling like a lady of leisure—although if Marie Antoinette taught us anything, it’s that perhaps these two things are more inextricably linked than one might think.
The most surprising part of the experience was not that I liked living a more tranquil, nature-heavy life, but that I’d always thought if I had to transport myself to another era, it would be Woodstock in ‘69. I wanted to see Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez onstage. I pictured myself microdosing on LSD and dancing on Yasgur’s lawn—not sitting, corset-clad, in a bucolic pasture with nothing save for a basket of glossy apples for company.
After climbing out of a Cottagecore rabbit hole, I looked up the etymology of nostalgia. It turns out that “nostos” denotes a “return home” in Greek, while “algos,” signifies pain. Together, they summon an “acute homesickness.” But does it count if one is pining for something they’ve never experienced? When it comes to Marie, the hordes of Cottagecore fans, and me, our nostalgia is rootless—an unmoored desire for glossy, prettified versions of lives we’ve never lived.
Scrolling through Instagram, it’s easy to see how one might be tempted to replace horrifying images of reality with photos of demure women sitting in pastures.
I can’t help but wonder: Would these Instagram-women really rather frolic among the flora of the 1700s than possess the right to vote? Are Revolutionary War reenactors actually craving a time when the most efficient way to wash oneself was to pump water from a well, heat it over a fire, and bathe in the same bucket as the rest of their family—without soap? I know if I’m being completely honest, the Woodstock I want to attend is a rainless version where I’m reading in my sleeping bag by ten each night, enjoying unlimited access to hot showers and 4G.
But alas, here we are living in 2020. We’re in our sixth-ish month of quarantine, due to a global pandemic that has killed over 875,000 people. The news is flooded daily with accounts of police violence. The world is a shitshow, and scrolling through Instagram, it’s easy to see how one might be tempted to replace horrifying images of reality with photos of demure women sitting in pastures. Who wouldn’t want to be swept away on a pastel-coloured wave of lace and ivy? Or live within a shiny, human and livestock-filled illusion?
But at the end of the day, nostalgia is a luxury—and often a chimera. Marie Antoinette had the resources to build herself a burnished alternate reality, but it’s impossible for us plebs to fully transport ourselves. Up close, every pasture is scattered with dung, even the most rote chores accompanied by the threat of getting kicked in the head by a cow. So maybe the answer isn’t build a personal hamlet or bust. Perhaps we can march in lace petticoats, wear flower-printed masks, take our pet rats with us to the polls. We can don high-necked, chiffon lace dresses and carry wicker baskets as long as we do so while working to make 2020 a little more idyllic. And once some progress is made? Then we can eat our cake.
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