The Simple History: #Cottagecore, Pastoral Arcadia and Marie Antoinette 

Mountainous landscapes, winding rivers and forests, arable farmland as well as flocks of sheep and the occasional shepherd is often the image we hold within our minds when thinking of the country life, particularly in a historical setting. We imagine it as a calm existence, away from the busy, overcrowded and often quite dirty dwellings of a city, although the reality of living and working in such areas can often be vastly different. In recent years, particularly in the post-pandemic era, the rural idyll image has taken a new form, most interestingly over social media sharing sites such as Tiktok and Instagram through the trend of #Cottagecore. Although to most onlookers and participants of this trend, the #cottagecore phenomena may be seen as something unique to the modern world, in its ironic rejection of technology-based living and a nostalgia for by-gone, pre-industrial days, its core values can be seen at various point throughout history, from the Arcadian Greeks to the Queen of France.  

#Cottagecore can be seen as the twenty-first century interpretation of what is largely regarded in art and literature as romantic pastoralism and is a concept that dates back to the classical era. In Ancient Greece, the region of Arcadia disgusted many with its ‘primitive’ ways of living, away from the great ‘civilised’ region of Athens. Arcadians claimed to be “born of the soil” and followed an ancient way of living, dating back to their settlement, as they claimed, “before the birth of the moon”. Due to its mountainous geography, the absence of poleis was often scorned by contemporaries and seen as a primitive engagement with the canton-system of living. Although sources are rather limited due to their nature of living, records do show stories of rustic festivals taking place “even reporting to have conducted human sacrifices by the fifth century”.  However, in the Hellenistic age, many began to see a reinvention of attitudes towards the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that was prevalent in Arcadia, romanticising its simplicity in the wild rolling hills of green compared to the damp, dirty and busy lifestyles they held in the city. Classical literature began to incorporate its ‘primitiveness’ into their works as romanticised areas of living in comparison to the grime of the Athenian city, where one could lie “lazily during the resting hour on the grass by a river or spring, under shady trees”. Virgil’s Eclogues and Theocritus’ Idylls painted “a pleasant picture of long walks and country picnics on longs days” and idealised many of the responsibilities and abilities of real rural people, suggesting that that they engaged in such activities, as well as political discussions or even poetry contests in sophisticated and educated language. Despite these shortcomings, as Karolina Zebrowska states, Arcadia slowly began to represent a “utopian vision of a simple life, being close to nature and living with your sheep, and chasing your lovers and just like – living your best life” in the perfect escapist format, becoming a byword for the mythical pastoral utopia of rolling hills and rivers, sprinkled with milkmaids and shepherds.  

Despite seeing an element of decline in the medieval era, the reinvigoration of classical works in the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras allowed the aestheticism of Arcadia to become once again prevalent. Featuring in the works of Christopher Marlowe, Gacilaso de le Vega, Jacopo Sannazaro (Arcadia, 1504), Sir Phillip Sidney (The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, 1593) and even Shakespeare, Arcadia once again became synonymous with a new romanticisation of idealist pastoral living: 

Come live with me and be my love,  

And we will all the pleasures prove,  

That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,  

Woods, or steepy mountain yields.  

And we will sit upon the Rocks,  

Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,  

By shallow Rivers to whose falls  

Melodious birds sing Madrigals. 

Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, 1599 

Under the greenwood tree  

Who loves to lie with me,  

And turn his merry note  

Unto the sweet bird’s throat,  

Come hither, come hither, come hither:  

Here shall he see  

No enemy  

But winter and rough weather. 

Act II Sc V 

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1603 

In each of these works, the pastoral and rural life is reimagined as peaceful, calming and beautiful. Praising the scenes of rolling hills, meandering rivers and evergreen forests as nature’s purest form of civilisation, compared to the human grime of city living. In a way, it creates a nostalgic feel for traditional peasantry living in touch with the need to replicate classical ideas about the world, particularly in a time when urbanisation (and the issues came along with it) were increasing year by year. 

Et bilde som inneholder tekst, person

Automatisk generert beskrivelse

Figure 1. ‘Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress’ – Le Brun 1783

Despite these re-integrations of Arcadia into art and literature, one of the most integral elements of the pastoral utopia that we think of today did not make its way into the public imagination until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: fashion.  

In 1783, this portrait of Marie Antoinette, titled La Reine en Gaulle by female artist Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun “was met with outright hostility” for portraying the Queen, not in her formal dress but instead in what was later popularised as the Chemise a la Reine. The scandal largely arose from the fact that what the Queen appears to be wearing in the portrait is a chemise or shift, which was the underlayer of most eighteenth century dresses. The style had originated in the French-occupied West Indies, where elite women wore much lighter muslin gowns known as ‘gaulles’ in order to cope with the much harsher climate. Marie herself began wearing such gowns, unusually made of muslin rather than linen, whilst pregnant with her first child, but soon began to adopt the style into her daily wear along with the removal of traditional heavy makeup and outerwear to encompass ‘simplicité jointe à l’élégance’. The gowns utilised a simple white fabric, roughly ruffled in the sleeves and bodice, placed over the head and secured with a drawstring and silk sash at the waist, delicately embroidered and hand sewn. Although many of these outfits would not have been practical for rural living, and were often too expensive for anyone of peasant status to afford, they did provide a valued alternative to traditional court dress due to their loose style, breathability from the robe a la turque and lack of harshly stiffened stays. The particular layering of the bodice upon the chemise a la reine, with its skirts of delicate muslin and white lace, signature puffy sleeves and straw hats was timeless in its creation.  

Figure 2. Hameau de la Reine

Once the portrait had begun to circulate, its scandal and distinctiveness from other royal portraits began to influence many other European elite women to dress in a similar style, even having its own influence on the art world to produce portraits of these women in the ‘shepherdess’ style, whereas previously women who had dressed in such ways had only ever made the background of the canvas. The Queen also requested that many of her ladies and guests ‘not to be too dressed up’ and hold audiences or balls ‘without too much ceremony’ in favour of the more simplistic and practicable forms of dress, with an evening in 1788 even based on Greek costume with Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, where those in attendance all dressed in the Queen’s muslin.

Figure 3. Hameau de la Reine

The Chemise a la Reine was part of a much wider desire on the part of Antoinette to adopt the ideas of philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau, whose ‘cult’ of nature, propositioned on humanity’s relationship to the natural world in a holistic format that demanded social reform on this basis. These ideas largely originated in his Lettre a M. d’Alembert (1758), La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), and Emile (1762). Marie even went so far as to visit the tomb of the famed philosopher, with a bevy of courtiers, although not the king.  

In the same year as her scandalous portrait, the Queen requested Richard Minque to extend the Grand Trianon’s gardens, within the estate of the Palace of Versailles, in the north of what is now known as the Hamaeu de la Reine, or the Queen’s Hamlet. Although the gardens were originally created in correspondence with the new English trend, much of the Queen’s renovations followed a general style of rural architecture to create a perfect model of pastoral myth. As well as the Queen’s private rooms at the hamlet, a working stable and barn, pig sty, sheep pen and dairy were incorporated, leading many to believe that Marie enjoyed ‘playing the farmer’. Marie’s mother, who kept an observant eye on her daughter at the French court praised the idea, but warned that it should not be used for “laziness and dissipation, the sole enemy that you have to fear” in 1774. The hamlet in fact filled many of the purposes that the classical authors saw of Arcadia; the ability to relax away from the civilisation and demands of the court and return to a natural state of being in rustical living. A report from even states that after a violent attack of the nerves, Marie returned to the hamlet to recover and calm herself in its purity. 

Figure 4. Still from ‘Marie Antoinette’ (2006) dir. Sofia Coppola

As the Queen found solace, the practical workings of the farm also held a direct purpose. Outside of its production of fresh milk and dairy products for herself and her ladies (who frequently stayed in the cottages of la Reine, preferring it to her apartments at Versailles), Marie also insisted that her children were directly involved and able to gain some educational value from the workings of the farm.  After the Revolution, the gardens and hamlet faced severe neglect, largely due to bad weather rather than any nefarious means, before restoration under Napoleon in which many of the original buildings were torn down. The farm was almost destroyed during the nineteenth century but after further donations in the 1930s and late-twentieth century, it was reconstructed in 2006 and now houses many of the original animals.

The Arcadian myth continued into the nineteenth century under the Romantic movement. Again, inspired by the works of Rousseau, particularly based on his novel Julie or The New Heloise [1761], the Romantic movement encapsulated once again as a fashion for the “aesthetic feeling”, “underpinned by awestruck wonder at the natural world”. Those such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron once again fed into the popularity of natural mysticism and aestheticism, albeit sometimes in much darker frames of mind. In the art world, the prevalence of the natural world remained firstly with the Pre-Raphaelites, who rejected many of the formal clothing styles of the Industrial Revolution in their depictions of women, instead opting for classical and medieval styles, embracing the naturalism of Marie Antoinette with wide sleeves, flowing gowns and natural hues. The trend once again regenerated under the Victorian aesthetic movement of the late 1800s with the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ which pursued the rejection of morality from artistic pieces in favour of the creation of works which elevated the taste in pursuit of pure beauty and often incorporated natural elements of previous trends.  

However, pastoral fashion once again re-entered the mainstream much later under the Edwardians, which was itself revised in the 1970s. The explosion of fashion in the later twentieth century moved away from the singular silhouettes of the 40s and 50s into much smaller streams of style. Many of these explored historical fashions, incorporating the Edwardian pastoral revival as well as contemporary inspirations such as Peter Weir’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, once again finding association with nature, walks, green grass and picnics to reintroduce pastoral blouses, skirts and straw hats into fashion aesthetics. 

The fantasy of the ordinary European milkmaid, or shepherdess in recent years, particularly in the post-2019 pandemic era, has yet again endured something of a cultural renaissance. For any connoisseurs of the internet, the tag #cottagecore is nothing new and encapsulates many of the same motifs of pastoral Arcadia and the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette. Formulating on sites such as Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok, the new Arcadia of the internet racks up hundreds of thousands of hits and hashtags, damning many to its romanticised image with a hint of historical nostalgia  

Although ironic in this format, #cottagecore encapsulates the anti-modernity sentiment of Hellenistic Arcadia with a rejection towards city living and the placement of technology as focus points for daily living, instead emphasising the value in embracing traditional tasks such as cooking, cleaning, foraging, reading, bookbinding, paper-making, embroidery and even partaking in the occasional sourdough starter as a means of re-grounding towards a slow living lifestyle, possibly even as a rejection of the fast-paced demands of capitalist working. In the world of fashion, we are once again seeing the re-integration of simple, rural styles and floral patterns into mainstream stores and outlets, from the infamous strawberry dress to Tiktok corset trends.  

Furthermore, just as Antoinette popularised with her scandalous portrait, the imagery of #cottagecore is assisted by the high popularity of TV shows such as BridgertonThe Great as well films such as Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice, and Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette, both of which have found new audiences in social media platforms. Together, these elements demonstrate a modern Renaissance of cultural Arcadia and its subsequent reinventions; the simplistic historical style is therefore now modern more than ever. The trend itself has grown further and developed relationships with other brands of ‘aesthetics’, encapsulating wider audiences with different ruminations of #cottagecore, such as simply #darkcottagecore, #cottagegore, #forestcore and ‘sibling-aesthetics’ such as #fairycore and #goblincore which take the aesthetic into an otherworldly setting.  

It remains to be said that many of these values, in every historical rendition, are often highly exclusive, with only those rich enough to be able to live (or build) such lives without the responsibilities rural and pastoral living often brings. The trend today also encapsulates an element of nostalgic exclusion, with many images circulating refraining to be racially inclusive to keep in with historical aestheticism and romanticisation, leaving many excluded from a reality that never actually existed. The world of #cottagecore therefore retains many of the problems that can even be dated back to the realm of Arcadia and faces increasing scrutiny on an ever more diverse platform. 

Figure 5. The Strawberry Midi Dress by Lirika Matoshi.

Figure 6. Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005). Credit: StudioCanal/Working Title Films.

The romanticisation of rural life and the pastoral Arcadia is something that is not unique to our Instagram feeds today. Even as the pandemic teeters into a box of bad memories, the values of slow living, spending more time on simple activities and engaging rural and green living, continue as priorities for many people to live a much more valuable and reflective lifestyle, with more people looking to move into country areas than ever before. The history of #cottagecore is therefore a unique dive into the past of aestheticism, and in its simplicity demonstrates that the trend cycle never truly goes away, whether that be in your own personal farm, or just on your morning scroll.

Written by Melissa Kane


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