Originally published in Glamour

I first saw it on Instagram in January—a dress the color of rosé with puffed sleeves and ruffled tulle, dappled with sparkling, scarlet strawberries. Created by Kosovo-born, New York–based designer Likira Matoshi, the Strawberry Midi Dress (known online as simply “the strawberry dress”) looks like something a fairy would wear in a midsummer’s hallucination. It’s spun sugar with a low-cut hint of spice—a little bit campy, aggressively cute, pure feminine serotonin in garment form. I wondered whether I could justify buying such a piece given all the weddings I was set to attend.

Then the pandemic struck, and I—like many—forgot about all clothing beyond my oversized tees and sweatpants. It was August by the time I spotted the strawberry dress again. And again. And again. While I was doomscrolling under my duvet, the strawberry dress was busy putting out runners. It was suddenly on TikTok, where young women giddily unboxed it or demonstrated how they sewed their own versions at home. It was on Twitter, where stans started photoshopping it onto pictures of Harry Styles and incorporating it into anime fan art. It was, of course, all over Instagram. People designed its virtual likeness in Animal Crossing.

Somehow a $490 glittery strawberry gown—a splurge during the best of times—had become a phenomenon in what feels like the absolute worst of times, defying both logic and statistics.

In April, clothing sales fell a record 79%. Tie-dye sweatsuits took off. We reached for bralettes and bike shorts. Sales of pajamas rose 143%. With weddings, vacations, celebrations, even nights out with friends ostensibly canceled, for months the only dress that seemed of interest to anyone was one in which you could nap.

One reason the strawberry gown has struck a chord with many during the pandemic may be because of what it represents. “The dress itself reflects an idea of better times,” says Matoshi over the phone from Kosovo. While the designer released the piece months before the pandemic’s onset, she says it was created with the intention of making the wearer feel hopeful. (Matoshi also was quick to create a matching glitter strawberry face mask, which at $50, is somewhat more grounded in the here and now.)

Not only is the strawberry dress, which is available on Matoshi's site in sizes 0 to 18, a bright spot during a dark year, it also coheres with one of 2020’s most popular trends: the “cottagecore” aesthetic, a sweetly pastoral paean to the countryside popularized by the internet’s young romantics. Strawberries, with their prim, tiny blossoms, are cottagecore. Wearing a pretty, puffy frock to collect berries—or picnic on them atop a grassy knoll—is cottagecore.

While Matoshi says that sales of her strawberry dress have spiked over 1,000% in the weeks since late July, one unusual element of the dress’s popularity is the way it has accrued a fandom of young people who have found creative ways to enjoy it without necessarily ever purchasing or wearing it themselves, something she's incredibly humbled by. “It’s very amazing, as an artist, that the whole point of my idea is appreciated like this,” she says.

Many young people who are enamored with the dress but understandably find its cost prohibitive have taken to creating an entire genre of fan art in its honor. “Normally, if you like a product, you’re just going to buy it, but the strawberry dress is not really feasible for a lot of people,” says Amy O’Callaghan, an illustrator who posted her rendition of a girl wearing the dress on Instagram. “Most people on the internet probably can’t just casually purchase the dress, so that's their way of expressing their love for it, which I think is probably better, to draw it rather than go buy a knockoff,” she says. (Matoshi, who is dismayed by the proliferation of strawberry dress knockoffs popping up online, agrees.)

In fact, the dress may have the perfect price point to encourage such a fandom, says fashion historian and professor Kim Wahl, Ph.D., of Ryerson University. “I’ve watched TikTok videos of people expressing shock, being like, ‘Oh my god, this dress is $500!’ But they still dream about it,” she says. While enough social media users probably have the disposable income to purchase and create content wearing the dress—a much larger proportion feel like Tantalus, reaching for strawberries just beyond their fingertips. “I think that’s part of its appeal—that the dress is almost within reach but not quite,” says Wahl. “It’s no fun to [create content about] a Gucci dress, which is thousands and thousands of dollars, because it’s so far out of reach to most people that you wouldn’t even bother.”

At last count, a quick Instagram search of the hashtag “strawberry dress” yielded more than 11,000 results, most being fan art dedicated to Matoshi's original creation. Much incorporates anime characters, queer themes, and gender nonconformism. For instance, the dress is often drawn onto male characters or photoshopped onto celebrities. A subset of fan art portrays queer romance between two anime characters, often with one in Matoshi’s pink tulle dress, and another in a black colorway, which fans invented and Matoshi does not offer.

On TikTok, the dress shares an unofficial anthem with self-described “cottagecore lesbians”—Mitski’s tender folk track “Strawberry Blonde.” Gen Z musician mxmtoon recently wrote a love song about the dress, which she posted on Twitter, “for the gays.” “It is gender neutral, happy, and cute, hope it makes u think abt ur crush or maybe just a pretty friend,” she tweeted. At the hands of its young fans, the strawberry dress has come to represent not only an idealized, fantasy aesthetic but an inclusive worldview in which fairy-tale romance is accessible to everyone, not just the cisgender, heteronormative couples who live happily ever after in retro animated films.

According to 20-year-old cosplayer and illustrator Avery Mayeur, who was able to purchase the dress after fans donated her the funds through her Ko-Fi account, the online virality of the strawberry dress can also be attributed to the fact that many of today’s highly engaged internet communities simply share an appreciation for quirky, cute fashion. “A lot of people who dress in alternative fashion may be a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” she says. “I’ve seen that association from studying fashion, being in the anime community, and interacting with the [queer] community—there’s a lot of crossover between them.”

Mayeur has seen her number of followers surge since she began sharing content of herself talking about and wearing the dress. A video she posted to TikTok in July depicting her receiving and enthusiastically unwrapping it accrued more than 5 million views and 1 million likes. One day she hopes to wear the dress to a wedding or special occasion. Until then, she’s frolicking in it in relative isolation and posting the proof online.

“I think it’s just the epitome of what can be considered a beautiful object,” she says. “So many people just enjoy looking at it, like, it’s pink, it’s frilly, it’s made out of tulle, it has glittery strawberries all over it, it’s the height of soft girl aesthetic fashion, and I’ve yet to see a single person who owns the dress not look good in it.”

On August 14, Matoshi announced her newest endeavor: a collaboration with Disney on the occasion of Cinderella’s 70th anniversary, for which she has released an array of delicate, playful gowns—no berries but plenty of bows and tulle. The strawberry dress, meanwhile, continues to have a life of its own online—a life its admirers collectively create with each post, free of gloom and filled with late-summer sunlight, picnic dates in pastoral settings, and romance of all stripes.

To read the story in Glamour, click here.

© Adrienne Matei 2017