There was a dress that my mom bought for me at an antique-style clothier in Salem, Massachusetts when I was fifteen. It was six days to Halloween and we had just driven south on 495, my friend and I cracking the backseat windows to feel the mix of hot afternoon sun and cool, dry wind that characterizes the best days of a New England fall. Of all the pre-holiday spectacle we experienced on that trip to the “witch city”—the diner playing The Craft on loop for its costumed patrons, the haunted mansion around the corner that I was too afraid to tour—trying on that dress, made of cream-colored satin, sleeveless and with a deep u-neck, was the most unforgettable.
It was transformative to feel feminine and soft underneath that lace-front bodice and full, pearlescent skirt. Unlike the nightmare of my softball pants that clung to me like tights but bagged on my teammates, the dress concealed the parts of my body—my thick thighs and ample bottom—that betrayed my otherness as a mixed-race teen. The dress didn’t feel like a costume to me, but rather like a becoming, and I was enamored with the sense of escape that it inspired in me.
Years later the experience of trying on that dress still sits with me, a luxurious fantasy with the power to bring tranquility to the midst of daily anxieties and larger political struggles. It’s the kind of fantasy that defines cottagecore, a movement loved and criticized for the very escapism that makes it so attractive. Clothing became the medium, and while the specifics of my style would change with the times, I was always dressing myself to feel as feminine and soft as possible, the daydream of picking wildflowers and slow roasting venison on a spit never far from my mind. As I’ve grown older and looked at the preoccupation with softening myself through a more racially conscious lens, I’ve seen dangerous fantasies of both time and place, and wondered: How do I find and maintain who I am in this genre that historically has been about erasure?
A Complicated Return to Fantasy
The narrator of my childhood imagination was a soft petal of a girl, dewy and delicate like a fresh spring bud. The characters that held center stage in my mind had names like Constance, Gwendolyn and Michaela, and they were a beloved amalgam of the fictional women from stories and films that I aspired to as a young lady. Long before there was an internet subculture named cottagecore, I was walking the rocky beaches of Maine searching for my lover’s ship on the horizon, envisioning the trim of my make-believe skirts being soiled with mud while foraging for mushrooms, and writing my wistful diary entries by candlelight.
So, when the world as we knew it shifted suddenly in March of 2020, and a whole new swath of people swapped their office wear for flowing linen and found solace in pressing their knuckles into floury mounds of dough, I felt at home within the aesthetic du jour. I slipped with ease into the comforting nostalgia of biscuit-making and bucolic picnics—the pastimes of my youthful fantasies—and prepared myself to fully embrace a newfound domestic existence, with an apron around my waist and my toddler on my hip.
Midway through the first pandemic summer, after having temporarily left the sweaty uncertainty of New York City behind for the fortifying embrace of multi-generational, communal living at my parents’ home in Maine, my mom unearthed a treasure trove of heirloom dresses from their basement hiding place. Knowing intimately my love affair with antique and vintage style and witnessing the romantic shapelessness of the shifts that decorated my Covid wardrobe, she let me have my way with the cache of century-and-a-half-old dresses.
Donning the collection of frocks that possessed within them the memory of my maternal line, most likely the surviving remnants of my great-grandmother’s trousseau, I expected to feel self-actualized in the full embodiment of the fashion and lifestyle trend that was soothing the unsettled masses and stretching to the farthest corners of the web. What I discovered instead, however, was the nagging feeling of otherness that had haunted me as a biracial child coming of age in the overwhelming whiteness of the nineties and early aughts in Maine. The person I saw in the mirror looking back at me, with her brown skin swathed in time-worn cotton, edged with delicate scallop lace was not Constance, nor any of the other benevolent figments of my adolescent daydreams, but the stark portrayal of an outsider.
Perhaps I would have felt differently had the latest iteration of socio-racial unrest not been burning in the background of our pastoral pandemic interlude. But, spending my mornings plucking sun-ripened raspberries from the bush while thumbing through the day’s headlines of toppling Confederate statues, murderous counter protestors, and mounting election trepidation with words like “second civil war” feeling more imminent than hyperbolic, it was impossible to feel uncomplicated in my participation in anything remotely touching the romanticization of settler-colonial culture and aesthetic. In other words, I could no longer see my girlhood fancies and their grown-up iterations as innocent aspirations toward assimilation. Instead, I started to think of them as vehicles for self-erasure.
Rural spaces and outdoor culture in general have long been fraught with exclusionary power dynamics that hold people of color apart. The Eurocentric histories that guided me through school, and the prevailingly white narratives represented in books and on screen suggest that the land, and all its implications of health, wealth and freedom, does not belong to people who look like me. And over the past year of political turmoil—with radicalized populism taking control of our farmlands and fishing townships and Trump flags sprouting from the ground like invasive weeds as you drive just twenty minutes outside of any city—that division seems particularly relevant.
The Power of New Imaginings
Four hundred and eighty-seven miles up the rocky coast from where I came of age is another story of a young outsider yearning to break her way to the inside. Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous series about a redheaded orphan who wins the hearts of her adoptive community, resonated with me as an elementary aged transplant to southern Maine from Brooklyn, New York. Anne’s rash attempts to belong—like dyeing her hair and walking the ridge pole of Moody’s kitchen roof—felt similar to how I would cover my freckles with my mom’s too-light-for-me foundation and center myself as the class clown, forgoing scholastic achievement in favor of my classmates’ affections.
Looking for myself in Anne’s world, though, proved to be as empty as Anne relying on her “window friends” to quell her loneliness. Because as Anne’s red hair developed into the “handsome” auburn hue that she prayed for, and her youthful calamity blossomed into poised maturity, and the boy that she loved turned out to love her back in spite of—or because of—her otherness, eventually, she belonged. But despite the depth to which my fantasies ran as an escape from the more uncomfortable realities of my youth, I remained curvy, brown-skinned, and on the outside. It is striking how quickly I developed a dysmorphic self-image in the absence of depictions of myself in the stories that I consumed as a child. I internalized the unhealthy narrative that girls who looked like me couldn’t be soft and graceful, belonging unquestioningly to the land with which they aspire to commune.
Even as the paradigm of femininity and beauty begins to shift toward inclusivity in the mainstream, representation of Black and Brown bodies within historical depictions remains complicated. Take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or more recently, the Shondaland sensation Bridgerton. While the intention behind these portrayals is to say, “Hey, look! We were here, too…,” some would argue that the insertion of folks of color into previously whitewashed spaces defangs the violent truth of the worlds they depict.
So where does that leave me, a Brown girl with an affinity for ramp season and darning socks by my (imaginary) cabin hearth? Can my long-standing relationship with an aesthetic that largely excludes my image and represents a history teeming with the trauma of generations be anything other than fraught?
A quick Google search of “women of color in cottagecore” proves that I am not the only one trying to unpack my position within the genre. For many BIPOC internet influencers, taking part in this trend—many would argue the most sweeping of 2020/2021—is an act of rebellion, and a way of confidently reclaiming the spaces, both online and in physical nature, that they’d previously been denied access to. Seeing @kihmberlie boldly embody the aesthetic as seamlessly as she takes on her other tableau personas, bringing a context to ephemeral clothes in countryfied settings has been encouraging. So has following the crafted wares of Nigerian-American artist Sarah Nsikak for her brand Studio La Réunion. Envisioning the reclaimed joy of post-colonial Africa, and “inviting oneself back to what was there all along,” the patchwork pieces of La Réunion marry feminine shapes with the colors and textile traditions of non-western fashions.
For me, it’s been a lot about honoring the aspects of my non-European ancestry that are at home within the lifestyle, like the celebration of self-reliance and sustaining community “off-the-grid” or outside of the dominant culture. Inlaying the foods, cultural practices and ideologies of my Caribbean and South American roots within the cottagecore experience—and unifying them with the French and Italian influences that reside within me—has been a good place to start. Afterall, there are no rules that say that the slow and thoughtful preparation of buttered scones and homemade jam is any purer or more idyllic than, say, the pounding of dried corn in a pilón to make arepas for your rustic picnic.
Finding myself within the cottagecore aesthetic has been a matter of self-reckoning, understanding the ways in which I have minimized or even ignored crucial parts of my identity to forge a spot for myself within the white spaces I have inhabited all my life. Allowing for inclusion within my own practice, mirrored by the overall shift in the consciousness of the genre on a whole, has allowed me a healthy reframing of the lifestyle. One that I, and my delicate, soft and dewy childhood persona, finally feel that we belong to.Become a Patron!
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