If you’ve walked into a T. J. Maxx in the last year, you surely haven’t missed the array of delicate floral attire all over America’s women’s departments. Rack after rack of dresses, blouses, and skirts boast soft, light colors, tiny floral prints, and feminine details like puffy sleeves and covered buttons.
It’s especially marketed to — and popular among — young women. In a remarkably unfeminine age, why are Gen Z girls suddenly so eager to dress like 1950s housewives and Jane Austen protagonists?
The aesthetic, marked by flowy cuts, feminine patterns, and soothing color palettes, evokes a lifestyle of gardening, picking flowers, baking cookies, or chasing chickens around a pretty red barn. Unsurprisingly, it caught on while many people were locked down in their homes hiding from COVID-19, often turning to activities like gardening or baking in lieu of social activity. “People … are flocking to ‘cottagecore,’ an online aesthetic that idealizes agricultural life, to calm their hyper-stimulated nerves,” noted an Insider headline in April 2020.
But a microcosm of the lifestyle’s overall aesthetic, cottagecore fashion, has remained extremely popular. A line of prairie dresses at Target took the trend so far, people starting posting elaborate pictures in their Target dresses as a joke. And for all the making fun, the spoof actually boosted sales.
The Target line of midi-length, high-collared dresses with lace trim was rather overboard, but a more moderate version of the delicate, feminine aesthetic has nonetheless remained popular. Retailers geared toward young women like Anthropologie have consistently marketed the “ultra-femme” styles over the past year. Not only are the designs more feminine, but there’s also a general predominance of skirts and dresses.
The vibe isn’t for everyone, but it’s often pretty and flattering. And seeing so many young women flock to over-the-top feminine styles is as refreshing as it is surprising at a time femininity is often discarded in the public square.
Lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, which began by glorifying a cheap, airbrushed knockoff of real femininity, has continued to spurn femininity in its move toward athletic attire modeled by the likes of transgender model Valentina Sampaio. Gen Z’s pop icons like Billie Eilish build their brands on baggy, androgynous looks that understandably reject the hypersexualized Hollywood mold. Athleisure, which prioritizes comfort and practicality, has expanded outside the gym and the jogging track, exponentially so when people started working from home.
More sinister, pushing transgender ideology on children has convinced young girls to run from their femininity. One study in the United Kingdom found over a thousand adolescent girls questioning their sex were referred to the Gender Identity Development Service in 2016, up from 15 girls in 2009. That’s a 7100 percent increase. And of course, the modern feminist movement in its desperation to rescue women from the home has mocked women who choose to embrace family instead.
Yet, despite this prolonged attack on femininity, many Gen Z girls are running to buy girly dresses. They don’t see floral sundresses as a ruse by patriarchal designers to make women look more appealing to men. They just see that they’re pretty — and they want to participate.
Not every Gen Z or millennial girl is decking her closet in airy florals and ruffled sundresses, of course, but the trend’s sustained popularity suggests many are incorporating it. Worlds away from Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits or Kamala Harris’ Converse, this fashion trend runs toward feminine tropes that have been mocked as outdated. Picking flowers for the kitchen table and baking blueberry muffins? Someone get these girls out of their sunny kitchens and into a cubicle!
Equally fascinating, the aesthetic harkens to a rural lifestyle that clashes with coastal elites’ vision of female emancipation. Empowered women are opening a bottle of wine and ordering Uber Eats to their high-rise Manhattan apartments, the corporate media and Hollywood narrative tells us. They’re above backyards and chicken coops — rural, flyover America is only good for the likes of backward Trump voters!
But if sales racks are any indication, young women aren’t so quick to buy into that narrative. In bold relief against burning, Covid-haunted cities, the frontier of sunny farmhouse windows and wildflower-speckled picnics is appealing. While most American girls can’t pick up and move to charming country cottages, they can (and do) dress like it!
They’re embracing unmistakable femininity in their style, and perhaps without realizing it, embracing feminine values of beauty, grace, hospitality, and even modesty. They aren’t afraid of dressing, and looking, like women.
Fashion is fickle, so who knows how long the specific trends will last. Cargo capris and tube tops could be in next summer (though for the sake of everyone, I hope not). Regardless of how long the trend lasts, its eager welcome by young women under barrage from an antifeminine culture is significant.
For now at least, they’re enjoying fashions that evoke those their grandmothers fought to be liberated from. And maybe that says something about how well the war on femininity represents real young women. Maybe without being told — actually, while being told the opposite — Gen Z girls are having a rendezvous with femininity. And by the looks of it, they don’t hate it.