Gunne Sax was founded in 1967, the Summer of Love, by San Francisco-based dressmakers Elle Bailey and Carol Miller. The brand became hugely popular under the direction of Jessica McClintock in the 1970s. Known for their prairie dresses, Gunne Sax designs incorporated elements from various romanticised time periods, from the front-lacings of a medieval kirtle, through the low-cut square neck of Renaissance French gowns, out to Victorian mutton sleeves and the lace inserts of Edwardian tea dresses. They also often resembled traditional folk costume – many look like refashionings of the German dirndl, for instance. The overall effect is one of fairytale escapism. This is a European heritage through American eyes. In 1984, McClintock herself told People magazine ‘I sell romance and fantasy’. The name of the dress, however, suggests the prairie skirts worn by colonisers in the mid-19th century. The dresses were popular with hippies in the 1970s, connecting back to the more progressive politics of the sixties and therefore appealing to the young women for whom they were made. Yet the invocation of “traditional values” in the whitewashed historical references and relative modesty of the designs made them double agents, and therefore supremely financially viable.
The overarching sense of historical fantasy is picked up by Laird Borrelli-Persson in an article for Vogue.com in 2016, entitled ‘How the Gunne Sax Dress Went From Cliché to Cool’. She writes that “at the end of what was, for many, an annus horribilis, the escapist fantasy aspect of Gunne Sax dresses resonates and makes them look fresh, not frumpy.” 2016 might well have been a horrible year for America, but 2020 was unfathomable in terms of collective trauma. If we take this need for escape and nostalgia as a key factor in the resurgence of Gunne Sax-style prairie dresses, it makes sense that we have seen so many iterations of the prairie dress in recent years, in a time of such huge socio-political upheaval. From Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2019 and Gucci fall/winter 2020, to Cecilie Bahnsen and Batsheva autumn/winter 2019, to Ganni and Dôen’s most recent collections, prairie dresses have already been established as a wardrobe essential of sorts.
Batsheva A/W 19 Final Look Prairie Wedding Dress
But then came cottagecore, an internet aesthetic which revolves around a romanticised western pastoral, free from the urban spaces to which so many of us have been confined through quarantine. As Rowan Ellis points out in her video ‘why is cottagecore so gay?’, cottagecore is not a subculture, but imagery consumed online, through social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok. But even if a cottage in the woods is unavailable to most, there are active elements of a cottagecore lifestyle that are available to all. Speaking to i-D, 16-year-old Redditor InfamousBees says “I can make bread in a tiny city apartment. I can grow herbs in my windowsill or in flowerpots or in old mugs. I can surround myself with loved, cared-for plants that can thrive on little sunlight. I don’t need a huge yard to have a few chickens or a big, fluffy dog. I certainly don’t need a cottage to be vulnerable with my girlfriend.” These small things are all examples of behavioural activation, small goals that result in positive rewards. The queer roots of this focus on handmaking and craft are outlined beautifully by Eleanor Medhurst in her article ‘Cottagecore Lesbians And The Landdyke Legacy’. Here, she discusses landdyke ecofeminism, which is based on a network of communities of lesbian activists. One function of these communes has traditionally been “living important values through everyday acts”, like the small rituals that link teenagers looking at images online to the aesthetic that underlines those images. Gunne Sax dresses, as they are now necessarily bought vintage – by virtue of the closure of the brand – play into the ecological concerns of cottagecore enthusiasts, but also hold a sense of the significance and integrity of something owned before. They hold stories of the past and therefore connect us to other human beings. There is community in pre-owned clothing.
Yet this is a community in which few can participate. Gunne Sax dresses, though labelled “affordable” by Borrelli-Persson, tend to sell at around £300 a garment, which is unreasonably expensive for most. They are also size restrictive – though a prairie dress looks great on everyone, most Gunne Sax examples for sale are between an XS and an S – even as a mid-size girl, I’ve yet to find one that will fit me. These price and size restrictions reflect some of the more problematic aspects of the aesthetic, which align with its predecessors. Ronald Creagh identifies hippies as the last guard of utopian socialism, following in the footsteps of the Romantics and William Morris, but I would argue that cottagecore is reflective of this ideology, too. It falls into many of the same pitfalls – an idea from the mind of those who are alienated from the real toil of farm life, who do not know the struggles of working the land, and who think of it only as “simple”, at their most detached approaching Marie Antoinette and her model farm, Le Hameau de la Reine.
A third problem with the cottagecore aesthetic is the exclusion of BIPOC – if you look under the hashtags for Gunne Sax, almost every photo is of a thin white woman. Indeed, many of the touchpoints of the aesthetic are of colonial Western Europe. Leah Sinclair argues that “black women embracing cottagecore is an act of defiance”. Like many exercises in reclamation, it is both ambivalent and powerful. Some of my favourite BIPOC cottagecore creators include @hillhousevintage, @obrienandolive, @sallyomo, @puffybunni, @victoriamisu and @camriehewie.
However, the white supremacist possibilities and the traditionally patriarchal values espoused by the aesthetic have drawn interest from alt-right circles, particularly through the figure of the tradwife, a woman whose position is based on traditional wifely activities, namely cooking, cleaning and babymaking. It’s substantially different from being a housewife, a job which (like many caring professions) is vastly undervalued in society today, because it relies on an ideology that dictates that women are naturally more gentle, more submissive, and weaker. It’s also clearly trans- and homophobic. In so many ways, it is the opposite of the WLW cottagecore community. The danger in an aesthetic, perhaps even more so than a subculture, is that the focus on imagery rather than politics allows for the visual markers of a group to be taken up by those who actively wish harm to others who might look or dress quite like them. Ultimately, the success of cottagecore online is its marketability. To span both sides of the political spectrum is quite a feat, and there’s huge commercial potential to be tapped, which is, I’m sure, partly why we’ve seen such a proliferation of Gunne Sax-style dresses in the past few years, and why the imagery has been pushed forward by the algorithms: it makes people buy. But even if this is the drive behind its popularity, the value of community and care, environmental activism, handmaking and crafts which cottagecore encourages are not lessened by that fact. If anything, it provides a drive to make a world where these things are valued more.
By Alexandra Sive