The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cottagecore, cluttercore, goblincore — deep down, it’s about who we think we are

Katie Calautti moved to rural New Jersey to live a cottagecore lifestyle, a practice she says has helped her mental health. (Katie Calautti)

If you want to chart our slow pandemic descent into madness, just take a look at the aesthetics of our confinement.

The spring of 2020 seems quaint in retrospect: We learned to knit, baked sourdough bread, solved puzzles and sewed handmade masks. Some people moved out of cities to get away from people, and spend more time in nature. This, we decided, was called “cottagecore” — performative cozy nesting, dried flowers, vintage aprons, a sense of optimism.

That gave way to the realization that some of us were going to be stuck in our homes for much longer than we expected. Enter “cluttercore,” a rejection of pre-pandemic Scandi minimalism in favor of bright colors, bold patterns, and eclectic collections, all layered in the same space. If we’re going to be trapped in our houses, we might as well have something cool to look at, right? Messy world, messy us.

And now? It's still ramping up, but the new pandemic "core" is "goblincore." Because that's apparently where the summer surge has taken us. Goblincore is about pure fantasy and escaping humanity to live in the woods: Think homes filled with dark wood and plants, mossy colors, whimsical mushroom prints, earthen homes, tarot cards, extreme isolation, plenty of brown corduroy and tweed.

“All three of these movements are about trying to create an ideal,” says Ruth Page, who teaches English and linguistics at the University of Birmingham in England, “which is a way of comforting and alleviating the distress of the reality that is around us.”

So, yeah. That gets to the core of how well we’re coping lately.

A brief history of the suffix "core": It comes, as you probably suspected, from "hardcore," a term that encompasses several meanings. Its first known use, according to Merriam-Webster, dates back to 1841 and referred to a type of durable foundational building material. Eighty years later, the definition had expanded to encompass a conceptual foundation, or central element of a thing. By the 1930s, the word had morphed into an adjective that meant an active or intractable member of a group — first in reference to the unemployed, and then to political activists.

And then it became a word for graphic porn.

But the suffix began its most expansive journey in the ’70s and ’80s, with the advent of hardcore music — that faster, more aggressive, intense genre of punk rock that has deep roots in the D.C. area. Hardcore eventually splintered into subgenres, including thrashcore, metalcore, grindcore, emocore and deathcore, among others.

It was a hearty dose of irony that got us from grindcore to cottagecore. When “core” made the jump from music to aesthetics in the 2010s, the suffix began merging with words that couldn’t be further from any of its previous definitions. Like “Grandma.” Or “Baby.” Or “Snail.”

Do you like dressing like the characters of the show “Bridgerton?” That makes you Regencycore. If you like the late ’90s and early 2000s, you’re a disciple of nostalgiacore. Just really into rabbits? Bunnycore. Goth? No, gothcore. There are even joke aesthetics, like Karencore, which aims to capture the look and attitude of your average talk-to-the-manager “Karen.” There is a fine line between aesthetic “cores” and straight up live-action role-playing, or LARPing — another subculture.

Instead of trends or subcultures, Gen Z describes these niche interests as “aesthetics” — perhaps because they can be all-encompassing. Aesthetics Wiki, which catalogues 147 cores (as well as 40 “punks” and 22 “waves”) offers not only moodboard images and outfit suggestions but also playlists, films and recommended readings for anyone who wants to truly embody a particular core’s lifestyle.

What hue looks best on you? Color analysis is back to help us obsess over our personal identities.

“In the kind of community of people who are really into these kinds of aesthetics, they have a little bit of this folk theory, or their own way of making sense of the ‘core’ suffix, which is that it’s like, coeur, as in the French word for heart,” says Angela Yee, who researches TikTok with the Stanford Social Media Lab. “It’s like, this is at the heart of what you value or what you like.”

Until the present cores, normcore was the best known. The fashion movement hit its stride around 2014, with a devotion to looking completely ordinary, but in a winking, ironic way — wearing chinos and mock turtlenecks and zip-up fleece, like a suburban dad. Its lasting effects have included the return of Tevas, fanny packs and Crocs. (A derivation, “menocore,” incorporates the boxy cardigans and linen tunics of the Eileen Fisher crowd.)

The reason “core” became the go-to suffix is because of its edgy association.

“It still carries with it that connotation of slight alternative culture, rather than mainstream,” says Page. Even though many of the looks it goes with now are far from edgy, “It’s a kind of mainstream embrace of something alternative.”

Lauren Foster loves to wear petticoats. The 30-year-old content creator lives outside of Philadelphia but is looking to move her family even farther out to the country: "We're trying to get a few acres and like, get some goats and chickens and really live off the land a lot more than we can do here," she says. "We have a garden and food that we're growing here, but we're too close to people."

About four times a week, she’ll dress up in swishy old-fashioned dresses and stage photos and videos of herself in pastoral scenes for her 28,000 Instagram and 155,000 TikTok followers.

“I have a few friends in this area who also really like the aesthetic — like, the look of it — who like to go out for picnics and photo shoots,” she says. “That is definitely a romanticized version of it.”

Cottagecore is only new to a younger generation, says interior designer Kerrie Kelly.

“When I worked for Ralph Lauren we designed in this style using patinated furnishings” in the ’90s, she says. And older millennials may recall being dressed in Laura Ashley florals throughout the mid-’80s. (Last year’s ubiquitous Nap Dress by the brand Hill House is the Laura Ashley floral frock of today. A Hill House spokeswoman declined to say how many have been sold since the beginning of the pandemic.)

Goblincore is only a few footsteps away from cottagecore.

“A mossy old cabin, [that’s] dark in the woods would be goblincore and then a bright, sunny cottage out in the field surrounded by flowers and sheep or something like that would be cottagecore,” says 33-year-old Kai Watkins, who lives in a goblincore tiny house she and her partner built on the back of a truck, currently parked in the wilderness of British Columbia. “They’re kind of the same thing, really, when you think about it. One’s just the light, and one’s the dark.” She associates goblincore with “macabre things, maybe a little bit more dirt and decay.”

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Even cottagecore isn’t all soft gauzy photos in fields of wildflowers. Katie Calautti, a freelance writer who lives in a rural New Jersey cottage built in 1847, sometimes gives followers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it takes to make her dreamy self-portraits.

“I showed people the leggings I’m wearing under my dress, like the Deet that I was spraying on my legs,” she says. “I check myself for ticks afterward.”

As marketers and brands have picked up on cottagecore, the fantasy has gotten a bit out of hand, she says.

“It frustrates me to see people wearing like $500 dresses that have been gifted, and trying to tell people that to live this lifestyle, they have to own this coterie of beautiful dresses and prance around fields,” she says. Most of her clothes are from thrift shops, and her decision to move to the country and live a simpler life was rooted in protecting her mental health, not in Instagram idealism.

“Fantasy is not pure escapism,” says Page, the linguist. “It’s also, in many cases, a kind of political commentary of what is happening in that moment.”

Foster, for example, is a Black woman who characterizes the cottagecore fandom as overwhelmingly White.

“A lot of Black people, they just don’t really resonate with the clothing. They don’t really want to revisit that era because it’s painful,” she says.

As for cluttercore — Kelly prefers the term "maximalism" instead — "It's thoughtfully curated, there is an organization to it," she says. Otherwise, it's just clutter, without the "core."

That’s what Augusta Wheeler, a 33-year-old hairdresser in Atlanta, kept in mind as she designed her cluttercore home. The centerpiece is her living room: a joyful mash-up of colors and textures showcasing kitschy thrift-store landscape paintings, inflatable bowling pins, an Ionic column, and throw pillows with chevrons, butterflies, and a portrait of Notorious B.I.G.

“It’s really just an eclectic room — it’s more like organized, beautiful chaos,” says Wheeler. “This whole house has been put together only by thrifted items and things found on the side of the road.”

Wheeler recently contracted covid-19, even though she is fully vaccinated. To avoid infecting her sons, she confined herself to her magenta-walled bedroom for weeks. It made her glad she had surrounded herself with so many interesting and sentimental objects.

“My grandmother’s curtains were in there,” she says. “That’s comforting.”

There’s collecting in goblincore, too, but it’s things that people might otherwise discard or find repulsive. Some of its most fervent adherents collect the bones of small animals, as a form of memento mori. Matt Penna, a 23-year-old goblincore aesthete in Brooklyn, collected months of his own hair trimmings to make a pair of horns that he wears with a billowy white shirt, and other shades of green and brown. He has received “nothing but compliments,” he says.

Penna also has a small menagerie of goblincore pets: a tarantula (named Contessa), two Madagascar hissing roaches (Rochelle and Paulette), a gecko (Nerve), a rabbit (Fatboy), a tailless whip scorpion (Yaga, after the folkloric Baba Yaga), and some shrimp (“They don’t have names”).

What appeals to him, as an environmental geology major, is goblincore’s ability to reveal “hidden aspects of nature,” he says. “Without fungi you have no decomposition and the world is just littered with dead things and bodies and fallen leaves.”

It’s macabre. And maybe that’s why goblincore appeals right now: The world is a grim and spooky place these days, and we have seen a lot of death. Maybe it’s beyond our comprehension at the moment. In the meantime, mushrooms will do.

Goblincore is “confronting all these covid deaths and this very real threat of death — just this darker side of things,” says Calautti. “You could wrap it up in an aesthetic package. But at its core, at its literal core — oh, my God, look what I just said — there has to be something a little bit darker, right? I feel like that makes sense.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited the picture of Kai Watkins, which was taken by Dylan Davies. This story has been updated.