What the 1980s Prairie Revival Can Tell Us About Cottagecore

1980s Prairie revival snapshots
Clockwise from left: the author in 1982, Saks Fifth Avenue ad 1981, the author's sister in 1982, Women's Wear Daily 1983.

A tiered calico skirt, an ivory blouse with a lace collar, hair tied back with a wilted ribbon, maybe a basket of lavender and a hand raised to shield eyes from misty sun. I’m describing an image tagged cottagecore. But I could also be describing one of the most popular looks of the early to mid 1980s: prairie style. 

It became obvious to me (and many others) that cottagecore was going to be big in early 2018, when a series of articles appeared in places like The Cut and Nylon celebrating, deriding and critiquing the re-entrance of prairie dresses to the fashion scene. Since then, and especially since the pandemic, cottagecore has grown from an aesthetic that draws loosely on nineteenth century Euro-American silhouettes and romanticized images of country life, to something like an aspirational lifestyle. 

The simplest explanation for the surge of interest during the pandemic is that anxiety coupled with sheltering-in-place had many of us seeking ways to celebrate slow, quiet, homely pursuits like puzzles and bread-baking. 

I think there’s more to it. And I think a clue to what’s missing from current discourse can be found in something that seems to be missing from the historical context articles I’ve read. Most of these name cottagecore’s modern antecedents as the DIY, ecologically aware countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s, which drew inspiration from Victorian and Edwardian leftovers found in secondhand shops and fantasies of nineteenth century “frontier” and country life. What these articles don’t mention is that, while a revival in nineteenth century aesthetics did emerge at that time, most of it faded with waning interest in countercultural “hippie” values. On the other hand, the prairie look — along with its masculine counterpart, cowboy style — actually reached its peak popularity in the 1980s. 

What was happening in the US in the 1980s? MTV, big hair and wacky neon sunglasses, for sure. But also economic recession, culture wars, conservative backlashes and political polarization that increasingly played out along urban/rural divides: all things that contributed to the popularity of prairie then, and that we’re still dealing with now. 

A Decade of Decades

Many retro and revivalist styles were popular in the 1980s, part of the emergence of mainstream postmodernism. Early in the decade, the most prevalent was America’s seemingly endless fascination with the 1950s. In contrast to earlier engagements with retro style, which tended to be more about pastiche and play, nostalgia was a dominant force in these years, part and parcel of a conservative backlash that touched every aspect of American life. From the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, the 1950s were rewritten to represent our most “peaceful,” “prosperous” era (unless of course you were Black, Asian American, Native American, Jewish, a woman, queer, poor…). 

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 with his nostalgic slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again” and cowboy costumes, he was harnessing his associations in the popular imagination with low-budget Westerns of the 1950s. Commentators at the time were quick to make the connection. Time Magazine described his popularity as based in “a militant nostalgia, a will almost to veto the intervening years and start again on earlier premises.”

It makes sense, then, that another one of the decade’s most popular retro looks — preppy style — was based on a WASP fantasy of the ’50s. The fashion merchandising director at B. Altman explained, “the look has emerged as a reaction to ‘flashy retro dressing’ and also a result of the drooping economy” (NYT, March 23, 1980, AS24). Poodle skirts and flight jackets were seen as “flashy” because, as Elizabeth Guffy discusses in Retro: The Culture of Revival, they weren’t meant to be the “real” 1950s but a self-aware collage of the recent past. By contrast, preppy, with its madras shorts and Fair Isle sweaters, was sold as a “tasteful” reproduction of 1950s campus style. Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone of the original Preppy Handbook, the look was adopted in such earnest that most of us never realized it was revivalist look at all. 

As the embodiment of trickle down economics and a very ’80s “dress for success” mentality, preppy had a nostalgic, conservative appeal. But some people also wore it ironically, even subversively, using fashion to insert their image into the Ivy League and country club world that boat shoes and polo shirts evoked, even though they were denied entry in real life. All revivals are complicated, especially when they become so widely adopted that people embrace them across age, class, gender, racial and geographic demographics. Preppy was no exception; from Lionel Richie’s kelly green sweater with pink popped collar on the cover of his 1982 eponymous album, to my own childhood delight in plaid shorts and polos despite living miles from the nearest prep school (or even really understanding that that’s what “prep” referred to), the look was continually resignified.

I mention preppy because it shares a few things in common with prairie: unlike most revivalist styles, both were popular beyond urban/suburban youth circles. Also, while both were associated at the high end with Ralph Lauren, they were most popular among middle and lower middle class shoppers. Prairie was a particular oddball, though, since it survived its association with the countercultures of the previous decade, despite the “hippies suck” ’80s mentality. This happened largely because the prairie aesthetic was adaptable to a new narrative. For some reason the fantasy of dressing up like pioneers and settlers, boys in Western shirts, girls in pinafore dresses, still felt right.  

So Totally (18)80s

Anyone who was conscious in the early 1980s knows the prairie look: Eyelet corset cover blouses or plaid shirts with ruffles over the shoulder, denim skirts with lace ruffles peeking out of the hem, maybe a “Southwest” inspired silver belt. Upper mid-range brands like Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley, which produced hyper-feminine calico dresses drenched in lace and ribbons, steadily grew in popularity over the course of the 1970s. By the early ’80s those dresses were coveted by girls across America, and knocked off at Sears and JC Penney and every other mid-tier department store and boutique. 

Cowboy and Southwestern-inspired styles were popular across genders, but the feminine prairie look was the biggest hit. References to prairie style in Women’s Wear Daily spike between 1981 and 1983, when the journal was filled with articles like “Little Dress on the Prairie,” “The Prairie Princess” and “Prairie Looks Lead Hot Spring Sellers.” (3/30/83; 12/15/81; 3/8/82)

It’s important to note that this was happening after years of recession that Reagan was supposed to ride in on a white horse and fix. Instead, what he did was reframe the story. In the new neocon history, labor conditions and wages weren’t declining because of Reagan’s anti-labor policies, but because 1. The rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s led to dangerous outsiders trying to steal jobs and destroy America, and 2. America gave up on its frontier spirit.  

This conservative narrative spilled over into mainstream culture, including television and film. In fact, throughout the 70s and 80s, a strange “country” story developed. The rural South was emptied of Black people, and the “wild” West was all pioneers and cowboys — with few “Indians” (or any people of color) to be found. In popular shows like Little House on the Prairie (1974 – 1983) and The Waltons (1971-1981), country stories were white and set in the past. Depictions of contemporary rural life were less fashionable, though they too were mythologized and whitewashed a la Dukes of Hazzard. Even Little House, with its “outsiders are just like us” approach to inclusivity, only had a handful of episodes featuring Indigenous people (even though the real “little house” was built illegally on Osage land) and they were mostly represented as inscrutable, small in number, and peripheral. With all its romantic, pearl-buttoned evocations of nineteenth century land grabbers, fashion was also participating in this retroactive cleansing of the American “country.” 

Gender Pioneers

The prairie fashion revival, then, followed a larger trend of nostalgically romanticizing America’s rural and frontier past. But there was more to prairie’s appeal than whitewashing and nostalgia. In the early 1980s, women were entering the workplace in record numbers. A 1986 Atlantic article about how women earned less because they just didn’t want to work as much reported that “from 1890 to 1985 the participation in the work force [sic] of women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four soared from 15 to 71 percent.” The increased visibility of working women in “traditionally male positions” was both a cause for celebration (1980’s second highest grossing film was the feminist comedy masterpiece 9 to 5) and anxiety (in 1982 that spot went to Tootsie, a movie about an annoying straight white guy who can’t get a job until he disguises himself as a “feisty feminist” woman). 

However it was framed, the spiking numbers of working women were as much due to recession and the impossibility of supporting a family on a single income as they were about changing values and “women’s lib.” The Atlantic suggested that women earned less because they were rejecting masculine careerism. It seems more likely that the culture failed to adapt to the new division of labor, resulting in what Arlie Hochschild famously termed the “second shift”  — the expectation that women will continue to be primarily responsible for domestic work, even when they have jobs outside the home. 

While the prairie look has its roots in the hippie fascination with all things Victorian and “natural,” I can’t help but think it grew in popularity partly as a response to this labor shift. Looking back at how it was sold, the prairie revival, ironically, appears to be both a conservative fantasy of “traditional” gender roles and a mild resistance to late-capitalism. Advertisements and editorials depict a “frontier” or country life where chores are hobbies and you spend most of your time sitting on wooden fences watching the sunset over a field of daisies. 

Another unusual characteristic of prairie style is that it was popular in both urban and rural markets, and across age groups. Buyers at a 1982 childrenswear show in Atlanta, though cautious due to the depressed economy, were reported to feel safe investing in prairie because “it’s a look that appeals to our kids in South Georgia who do a lot of square dancing” (WWD 4/26/82). Honestly, I don’t know anyone who escaped this look. My teenage sister had a stash of Gunne Sax dresses that hung next to her preppy oxford shirts. My mom wore tiered skirts, and my favorite blouse in second grade had a frilled stand-up collar and shoulder ruffles. All this suggests that there was some appeal across ages in this fantasy — though it must have meant something different to square dancers in Valdosta, Georgia than it did to college students in New England.

For the women I spoke to who were kids in the early ’80s, a common thread is that the calico dresses and pinafores, ironically, were part of a kind of tomboy aesthetic, and associated with ingenuity and taking control of your environment — things a lot of girls were socialized to avoid. “It’s weird that I thought that,” a childhood friend reflects, “because [they] had flower print fabric, ruffles, eyelet trim…which all sounds so girly. Something about it made me think I could still run around and climb trees and get dirty while wearing it.” A writer friend who grew up in Los Angeles summarizes the style’s appeal as part of her “survivalist pioneer girl” phase. 

And for adult women, when you’re living in a culture that demands your labor but isn’t prepared to offer fair pay or equal opportunities (the Equal Rights Amendment died in Congress in 1982) the daydream of dropping out of a stagnant 9 to 5 job to churn butter and watch sunsets sounds pretty good.

So it isn’t fair to suggest that this look was simply conservative. It is fair, however, to acknowledge the ways that conservative forces play on that longing and weaponize our nostalgia. When Ronald Reagan posed for photos on horseback, wearing blue jeans and a cowboy hat, he was evoking two times at once: his own past as an actor in B-Westerns, made during the “safe,” “simple,” “prosperous” 1950s, as well as the period those films glorified. He was reviving manifest destiny; a time when the primary goal of the United States was to “tame” the wilderness and expand the frontier during a period when many Americans felt their real future was bleak. That nostalgia, along with a revival of Cold War paranoia, supported aggressive military expansion and foreign intervention that came to be known as The Reagan Doctrine.

Troubling Nostalgia and Fantasy

Stuart Hall once said that popular culture narratives are myths, “which represent in narrative form the resolution of things, which can’t be resolved in real life. What they tell us about is the ‘dream life’ of a culture. But to gain a privileged access to the dream life of a culture, you had better know how to unlock the complex ways in which narrative plays across real life.” Perhaps the 1980s take on the 1880s functions best for us now as a cautionary tale. Since we aren’t in the thick of it, it’s easier to take a broad view, to unlock some of those complexities.

Currently, the narrative of  “cottagecore” focuses on reactions against contemporary life and its ugly realities. Unspoken is the way these images can be positioned in contrast to actual rural life. This is not to say there is some “authentic” rural culture that cottagecore is inherently opposed to. Contemporary country life is just as susceptible to myth-making. But, since it seems to be largely non-rural progressives who are drawn to cottagecore-y looks, it’s useful to remember that creating an imaginary divide between a historical and fantastical place we call “beautiful,” and a “real” country that’s backwards and dangerous leaves little space for solidarity with those fighting for change in the “real” country (Indigenous activists, for example).   

To be clear, I’m not here to bash cottagecore. I’m here because I love it. I’ve been drawn to iterations of it since my very ’80s childhood. In graduate school, before my signature look became piss-poor adjunct (this is what real #darkacademia looks like, kids) a favorite professor described my style as “French New Wave meets Beatrix Potter.” I’m interrogating my own fantasies along with the culture’s. And doing that, I have to acknowledge that for all its potential, cottagecore is also especially susceptible to a whitewashing, colonizing, conservative narrative. 

Today, as I scrolled through Instagram searching for the inspiration I needed to finish this piece, my screen was lit by an orange haze. It wasn’t dreamy, golden hour light. It’s how the sun looks through a layer of smoke. It’s what September in Portland looks like now. At the same time I was (finally) getting texts from Elise, my Dismantle partner, in New Orleans. She’d been living without power almost a week after Hurricane Ida made landfall. Meanwhile, Melissa Harris Perry was on NPR talking about Texas’s abortion ban and uprisings of anti-science anti-vaxxer anti-masker parents as schools attempt to reopen. Instagram’s endless stream of prettiness, youth and femininity, dressed in fairy wings and petticoats, picnicking in ferny glens, was simultaneously soothing and exhausting. Exhausting because real forests that I love so much are burning down. Because it’s hard to enjoy the past in the form of like, muslin and scones, when faced with a society returning to makeshift abortions and life without refrigerators. 

It also feels exhausting to look back at the 1980s, but frankly, we have to. Because conservative forces have been playing a long game, hoping we’ll forget. They’ve been chipping away at the voting rights act, at Roe v Wade, at labor and environmental protections — all the gains of the 1960s and ’70s. This project gained its firmest foothold in the ’80s, with the Reagan administration’s, to repeat Time’s 1981 observation, “militant nostalgia, a will almost to veto the intervening years and start again on earlier premises.” 

But they don’t own nostalgia or fantasy.   

One of the most exciting things about cottagecore (and it’s related aesthetics; forestcore, goblincore etc.) is, like prairie, its embrace by so many different kinds of people. While the IG algorithm still seems to favor thin white cis women, you don’t have to work that hard to find queer folks, people of color, people with different body types, and more hashtagging themselves surrounded by big straw hats and tiny tea sets (favorites include @museanddionysius and @wheelingalong24). My hope is that we’ll keep pushing this further until it isn’t a question of inserting new bodies into an old fantasy, but disrupting and changing what the fantasy means. Lovers of prairie, in a limited way, used fashion to subvert the very narrative it was based on. Cottagecore can do that too. But it also has limits, and we can’t challenge them unless we’re willing to understand what they are.

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.