It started with the bread baking. Pushed by shutdown orders, limited supply and millions of consumers looking for something to do to fill their newfound hours of free time amid shutdowns, many people began making bread.
Instagram began looking incredibly like a bakery’s front page. So-called “breadstagrammers” filled it with pictures of proofing bread dough in coiled wooden bannetons or artisanally shaped loaves centered on breakfast tables.
And, as one Slate writer/pandemic baking enthusiast put it, there was “focaccia with mounds and valleys like hilly country seen from a plane; before-and-after photos showing the power of oven spring, as a ball of raw dough blossoms into a crusty loaf; and cross-sections of sourdough with crumb so open you could hardly butter a slice.”
The bread of social media, like the people who were posting photos of it, always looked its best when presented to the world. Loaves that were burned, failed to rise evenly or ended up looking mildly malformed were consigned to be eaten undocumented, or occasionally posted to a baking misfire thread with all the other failed breads.
The national obsession with baking bread quickly turned into a national debate on the best bread to make and the best way to make it. Dry yeast or fresh cultures? Hand-kneading or stand-mixing? Sourdough versus every other kind of bread? And is banana bread really bread, or is it just a cake aiming above its station?
As it turns out, bread is a highly variable subject on which people have incredibly strong positions. And while baking one’s own bread was the first prominent throwback trend when it came to how consumers are filling their time, it’s been far from the only one.
Digitization and advances in futuristic technology have gotten all the glory during COVID-19, but high-tech hasn’t been the only thing skyrocketing during the pandemic. A whole lot of old things are finding new uses right now, as consumers look for both something to do and an easy way to harken back to simpler times.
Forget about “hygge,” the Danish interior design and lifestyle trend most closely associated with making one’s person and home as cozy as possible. “Cottagecore” is the newest trend in town when it comes to enhancing the comforts of the home.
Cottagecore is a design and lifestyle trend that sees modern Instagrammers building their personal aesthetics around an idealized version of later 18th-century and 19th-century British pastoral life.
A day in the life of a typical cottagecore enthusiast – according to Jesca, an Orlando area devotee speaking to Vox – involves such things as knitting or taking a trip to the farmers’ market. Jesca also bakes heart-shaped strawberry tarts, makes beeswax candles and tends to her plants. And she does all of this while wearing what’s become the dominant fashion aesthetic of cottagecore: billowy dresses, puffed sleeves and lots of floral patterns.
Other hallmarks of cottagecore include lace doilies, handmade fairy spoons, illustrations from Frog & Toad, Beatrix Potter stories and the general styling of The Secret Garden.
According to published reports, cottagecore comes in several sub-genres. For example, there’s “meadowcore” (cottagecore, but focused on meadows), “forestcore” (cottage core in whimsical wooded settings) and “frog core” (19th-century cottagecore aesthetic sensibility applied wholly and entirely to frogs). And our personal favorite at PYMNTS: “goblincore” (cottagecore, but with fewer flowers and sparkles and more mud, foraged mushrooms and gender-neutral clothing).
Cottagecore and its strength as a social media movement are something of a contradiction. It’s an idealized aesthetic celebration of a past that never quite existed, enabling the participants to harness a modern digital connection and pushing the trend into going viral.
But it’s a contradiction that cottagecore participants embrace because – as Evienne Yanney, a 16-year-old Californian enthusiast, noted in an interview – the joys of an imagined past are in many ways far preferable to existing fully in the present. “The thought of running away to a cottage is really, I guess, kind of soothing,” Yanney said.
Talking to the “TODAY” show, Amelia Ansink, accessories editor for Fashion Snoops, made a similar point on the rise of cottagecore. She sees it as a search for stability uniquely suited for the present historical moment.
“During the worldwide pandemic and long periods of stay-at-home orders, the movement accelerated rapidly as people looked for an escape from our dark reality,” Ansink said. “Cottage core unintentionally represents the ideal quarantine life, where isolation in nature is strived for and everything we need can be produced at home and by our own hands.”
But what about those goods that can’t be procured at home by our own hands? Like when one wants a glass of wine but the YouTube videos on how to start your own backyard vineyard aren’t helpful enough?
As it turns out, the past has a solution for that, too.
The Wine Window: History’s First Drive-Thru
While much has been said about how the drive-thru window has been among the things saving the QSR segment from ruin during the pandemic, it turns out this isn’t the first time in history that service windows have become important tools in combating the spread of a plague.
Centuries ago, when the Black Death was ravaging Europe, the good people of Italy were on the hunt for a way to enjoy a decent glass of wine in the public square without dying.
And thus, the good people of Tuscany invented the buchette del vino, or “wine window.” It was a pint-sized hatch carved into the walls of urban wineries and shops, offering just enough room for medieval merchants to slip a drink to customers and accept payments in return.
Wine windows remain carved into the walls of some Tuscan wineries to this day, but fell into disuse as the invention of antibiotics made that bubonic plague a negligible risk for modern consumers.
Or at least wine windows had fallen out of favor until recently, when a new global pandemic left people desiring a good, stiff drink and a safer way to consume it. That’s something the wine window was literally designed to provide.
“Everyone is confined to home for two months and then the government permits a gradual reopening,” the Wine Window Association website reads. “During this time, some enterprising Florentine Wine Window owners have turned back the clock and are using their Wine Windows to dispense glasses of wine, cups of coffee, drinks, sandwiches and ice cream — all germ-free, contactless!”
Association President Matteo Faglia told The New York Post that “people could knock on the little wooden shutters and have their bottles filled direct from the Antinori, Frescobaldi and Ricasoli families, who still produce some of Italy’s best-known wine.”
Wine windows aren’t only getting a boost from consumers, but also historians who’d like to see their contributions – now and over the course of history – more officially honored, Faglia noted.
“We want to put a plaque by all the wine windows, as people tend to respect them more when they understand what they are and their history,” he said.
Whether wine windows will be immortalized with plaques remains to be seen – as does whether or not their use will last beyond the latest pandemic.
In fact, the long-term stickiness of such new, old-time habits that consumers are using as security blankets to keep COVID-19 anxiety at bay remains to be seen. While it seemed that everyone on Earth was deep into bread-baking as a lifestyle this spring, by the time summer rolled around, people’s enthusiasm for making their own bread had cooled as much as the picture-perfect loaves posted on Instagram.
Will cottagecore face the same fate once consumers are less confined to their “cottages?”
Well, considering that hygge was already on its way to becoming a household word among millennial consumers, we think it’s safe to say that consumers’ obsessions with cozy, comfortable surroundings weren’t created solely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thus, they’ll likely still be around long after the pandemic has passed into the historical record. But whether that obsession will look quite so much like 18th-century pastoral England and involve quite so many handmade bonnets bought on Etsy is anyone’s guess.