Cottagecore: Meet the Influencers and Entrepreneurs Taking the Nostalgic Trend Into the Age of Social Media
At 70, entrepreneur and fashion maven April Cornell, pictured above at her easel, has built a thriving business around her cottagecore aesthetic with five signature stores and a wholesale business that supplies 1,000 outlets in the U.S. and 150 in Canada. Photo: Stephanie Welbourne
Cottagecore is a whimsical, romantic aesthetic inspired by nature that honours handicrafts, heirlooms and beauty, wrapped in a cocoon of nostalgia. Fondly recalling a sepia-toned past and providing the ultimate escapist fantasy, it was epitomized by a frenzy of gardening, sourdough-bread baking and canning that dominated social media during the onset of COVID-19 isolation.
Millennials and Gen-Zers hung chintz wallpaper, arranged tea-party-worthy tablescapes, hunted down vintage cardigans and flowing dresses, and took up needlepoint, raising chickens and pressing flowers. The trend that engulfed fashion, decor and hobbies has been called “your grandma, but hip,” although granny’s doing it too. She started when it was just called life.
Although it’s a way to slow down, unplug and de-stress, paradoxically it has led to constant updates on social media platforms like TikTok, where videos with the cottagecore hashtag have 6.6 billion views, and even caused a Twitter war.
Cottagecore influencer Paula Sutton, 51, has 492,000 followers on her Instagram account @hillhousevintage, where she poses in gingham dresses and wide-brimmed hats on her Norfolk County property in England, creating bucolic tableaus with furniture, tableware, books, homemade cakes and armloads of flowers. Her first book, Hill House Living, billed as “a gorgeous guide to the simple pleasure of cottage living,” came out Oct. 19, with hundreds of photos and drawings of her beloved Georgian home.
Cottagecore disciples are overwhelmingly white, and the movement has been criticized for its Eurocentric focus and lack of diversity. Sutton, a former editor of Elle magazine whose parents came from Grenada, was at the centre of a social media storm last year when she was trolled on Twitter by a white woman, sparking allegations of racism from Black followers. There are Black cottagecore social accounts like @CottagecoreBlackFolks on Instagram and @enchanted_noir on TikTok, an #asiancottagecore hashtag and accounts from LGBTQ+ women.
Cottagecore is like a curated exhibit with objects made, assembled, repurposed and displayed to be shown off primarily on the internet, says Alexandra Palmer, the senior curator of global fashion and textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum. For many, “their artistry is validated on Instagram and TikTok.”
She says yearning for simpler times dates back to at least the 18th century, when French queen Marie Antoinette commissioned an architect to build the Queen’s Hamlet on the grounds of Versailles, a model village complete with a windmill, man-made lake and working farm, where she would go on long walks and take a break from the hectic court schedule at the palace.
When Palmer was growing up in England in the ’60s and early ’70s and her fashion was being influenced by youthquake designer Mary Quant and androgynous rocker David Bowie, the cottagecore ideal was embodied by Welsh designer Laura Ashley’s Victorian linens and empire-waist gowns.
Although the subculture has gained popularity, each person’s cottagecore collection is distinct. Palmer says buying vintage, or “fashion that’s unique,” gives the wearer a sense of exclusivity. The same is true of decor; scouting second-hand stores for retro furniture and accessories is the opposite of ordering cookie-cutter designs from Ikea.
The cottagecore vibe is achievable on the most modest of budgets, and borrows from old-school frugality, hippie sentiments honouring nature and a more modern, eco-conscious philosophy at a time when the pandemic has put a serious dent in our shopping habits and the planet is ailing. “It’s using the neglected, the discarded and salvaged,” says Palmer.
Here are the stories of five adherents who live in a cottagecore dream world.
April Cornell’s feminine frocks, frilly nighties and retro tea towels first graced store shelves in her hometown of Montreal, where she attended Dawson College, 46 years ago. The Canadian fashion maven created a signature look of romantic florals and bohemian style influenced by travels to India and Afghanistan and her art-school training.
Today the 70-year-old entrepreneur stands atop an empire of five signature stores (two in Canada) and a wholesale business that supplies 1,000 outlets in the U.S. and 150 in Canada, as well as a bustling online business that sells her designs to cottagecore-thirsty Gen-Z.
Old and young alike wear her polka dot “porch dresses,” set their tables with her tea-rose linens and decorate drab corners with pillows that are pretty in pink, lavender and buttercup hues.
The COVID-fuelled uptick in online sales and the newfound market of 20-somethings caught the designer by surprise. Cornell had weathered a drought that saw her shutter more than 100 brick-and-mortar stores in 2005 and turn to online and wholesale markets.
“I think of myself as being able to create a sense of beauty with a dress,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in Burlington, Vt., where the company has its headquarters and flagship store. “I started with my generation, but a new generation is finding that same space.”
Alerted to the cottagecore trend by her daughter-in-law, designer Camille Cornell, she realized her, what is now called “granny-core”, clothes were right on target. It also sparked her own trip back in time, inspiring her to dig up old recipes for molasses cake, fruit loaves and shortbread cookies passed down from her parents, who were born in Cape Breton, N.S.
“It is the stuff of memories. It makes you feel good — something from the past we can carry forward.”
She works and lives in a cottagecore fantasy, her antique desk surrounded by shelves of fabric and racks of clothing. She paints watercolours in her riotous garden, which in turn inspires designs for products featuring dahlias, roses, tulips and rosehips.
“It looks like a job and a profession, but to me, it is a calling,” she says.
From the beginning, Cornell steered clear of tight, cleavage-baring fashion and severe, monochromatic colours. Her clothes were meant for garden parties and country outings, not for office towers or nightclubs. They had to “feel flattering to [a woman] and make her feel good.”
Over the years she’s added jumpsuits and aprons for tending flowers, low-heeled shoes and colourful boots for walking forest paths, satchels and bags for watercolour brushes and knitting needles. The latest addition is men’s shirts from her son Lee’s One World Brothers label.
It’s beauty for beauty’s sake, but Cornell’s brand also attracts younger generations because of her ethical practices. She owns her own factory in India where she pays fair wages rather than buying piecework from sweatshops, and although she favours cotton, any polyester she uses is made from recycled plastic.
Sophie Creelman, 27, and her grandmother, Judy Creelman, 87, are united by blood and their love of cottagecore.
Sophie, an interior designer and painter who lives in a restored, 115-year-old schoolhouse in Ontario’s Haliburton County, sees it as an aesthetic for home and garden. For Judy, a retired physiotherapist who lives in the home her husband, Len, built in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, it’s a way of life.
Sophie incorporates nature into the interiors of the lakeside homes she designs for local clients of ACM Designs in Haliburton. At home, she embraces what she calls “designing with intention,” where she combines soft, timeless colours such as Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee with hand-knotted rugs, a mix of antique and contemporary furniture, dozens of plants and her own artwork for a contemporary farmhouse aesthetic. And yes, she has lots of photos for her portfolio and friends. “Our generation is crazy about documenting our lives,” she says.
Judy has spent her life creating playful gardens where wildlife forage, dinner is grown and grandkids hunt Easter eggs. She and Len, an engineer for the Canadian military, raised six kids in Haliburton, where Len helped tradesmen build his first house, a fantastical structure complete with a staircase hidden behind a secret door and nooks and crannies specifically designed for kids to play hide-and-seek.
Eighteen years ago, Judy and Len retired to Nova Scotia to be closer to her family, where Len supervised the building of their second house, and her sisters live up the road to this day.
The couple have filled their 12 hectares near Annapolis Royal with a cornucopia of plants that attract rabbits, deer and even a peacock for their viewing entertainment. The Fundy tide rises and falls each day on their doorstep, and Len describes the flora, fauna and fantasy of their homes as “a real joy.”
This winter Judy was still poring over seed catalogues and planning garden projects even though she’s got a bad hip and it’s getting harder to wrangle the weeds and overgrowth. She bakes, cans and preserves, continuing the traditions of her grandparents.
Sophie says her generation has a great respect for nature, the foundation of the cottagecore movement, and she and her friends have embraced the aesthetic and lifestyle. “Setting your table has tradition and beauty behind it, not just having a meal,” she says.
While continuing to renovate her home and converting a barn into an art studio, she respects its past. A ledger from 1889 that details all the schoolhouse purchases is displayed prominently in the home she shares with her partner, Ben, a teacher, and their West Highland White Terrier, Escher. The whole point, Sophie says, it to create a “welcoming environment,” just as her grandmother, Judy, has always done.
A Stitch in Time
As a teenager in Newmarket, Ont., Michael Sellick didn’t like shopping in yarn stores filled with pink boxes of wool featuring women on the covers, but he fought gender stereotypes in the decorative arts to become the king of crochet. The 48-year-old former truck driver now runs a multi-pronged education, marketing and travel business called The Crochet Crowd with his life partner, Daniel Zondervan – known as Diva Dan to fans – from their home in Wolfville, N.S.
Crocheting, which fits the cottagecore aesthetic, with its emphasis on crafting and home beautification, has captured the imaginations of millions around the globe.
Since he started working on the business full-time in 2011, Sellick – who goes by Mikey online – has gained an international following, with more than a million subscribers to his YouTube channel, 1.2 million followers on Facebook and 11 million views a year on his website blog. Zondervan, a former musician, works behind the scenes as a pattern designer, content creator and event organizer.
Most devotees, who refer to Sellick and Zondervan as “the boys,” are women between 45 and 65. “I have a million mothers,” Sellick jokes.
Amazon pre-orders for their Sept. 1 book from MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc., The Crochet Crowd: Inspire, Create & Celebrate, hit 2,000 in four days in June. Publisher John MacIntyre says it was the bestselling crochet title for three weeks, “which is sort of unprecedented.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “many of our viewers were at home needing inspiration,” Sellick says. “We provided that.”
His mother, who could finish a scarf in one night while watching TV, taught him to double crochet when he was 14. In his 20s, he would watch Star Trek: The Next Generation for an hour, which was long enough to produce a substantial section for a blanket he was working on. In a pre-internet era, he saw confirmation of his crafting on TV, such as the afghan on Roseanne’s couch.
“It’s a way to decompress, almost meditative, because you are creating something tangible,” Sellick explains. The best thing about crochet is how fast items can be produced. “You can see it in real time. Knitting was too slow.”
Before the internet, he got design ideas from television, but now companies like Yarnspirations provide free patterns, which Sellick uses, among others, in his online tutorials, like the chicken with twirly tail feathers that was a treasure-hunt prize on one of the Hook’n The High Seas cruises he started in 2014. Yes, hundreds of enthusiasts have cruised the Caribbean as they churned out baby clothes and wall hangings with fellow yarn lovers. Although Sellick and Zondervan are planning the final voyage in 2022, they are thinking about a new iteration of “travel with the boys.”
“It’s so shocking. I never expected this [success],” Sellick says. “It works because I’m authentic.”
A version this article appeared in the August/Sept issue with the headline “A Thing For Chintz,” p. 40.