“Country Girls Are Whisky In a Teacup”: Crafting Rural Femininity on Etsy
Holly M. Kent, Associate Professor of History, University of Illinois-Springfield
Soon after its founding in 2005, the online marketplace Etsy became an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with. As of the 2010s, Etsy remains a vibrant, dynamic commercial space for makers of various kinds to sell their goods. My project focuses on female vendors who sell clothing on Etsy (as of 2017, 90% of Etsy sellers were women), centering their shops on (their visions of) contemporary rural femininity. I consider the garments these sellers market and the insights they provide us with into ideals of rural women’s lives in the twenty-first century United States.
I examine shops run by eleven rural female sellers from the Midwest, West, and South. In a fashion marketplace driven by the coasts (specifically, the urban centers of New York and Los Angeles), these female vendors market clothing designed by, and intended for, the “country girl.” These shops’ visions of who a “country girl” is are quite narrow, as all of these shop owners (and all of the models they feature on their sites) are white. The “country girl” marketed to on these sites is also implicitly heterosexual, with products concentrating on romantic relationships with men. The clothing sold through these shops sometimes seem to question, but in the end powerfully reinforces, dominant ideas about femininity (representing it as white, heterosexual, and centered on personal appearance, domesticity, and marriage.)
The idea that “country girls” embody a different kind of femininity than their urban counterparts is a common theme of the products sold by these stores. T-shirts’ slogans emphasize that rural women combine toughness with conventional femininity in distinctive ways. Backwoods Gypsy (a shop run by Brandy Zoph out of DeSoto, Missouri) features a shirt that reads “Lifted Trucks and Lipgloss,” and Enid and Elle (a shop run by Danielle Manship out of Hardinsburg, Indiana) sells a “Boots, Lace, and Lots of Grace” shirt. These shirts affirm traditional notions of femininity (highlighting the delicate fabric of lace and an interest in beauty culture), pairing these feminine markers with more conventionally masculine ones such as trucks and boots (a type of footwear which, though widely worn by women in the twenty-first century, is typically associated with a more masculine aesthetic.) These shirts underline that country women–though as invested in conventional femininity as their urban counterparts–are also more at home in traditionally masculine spaces.
Several of these shops nod to the fact that femininity–specifically, ladyhood–is a social construct and type of performance. Both Backwoods Gypsy and Jessica Baum’s Boundless Apparel Shop (which she runs out of Tooele, Utah) quote the chorus of country singer’s Miranda Lambert’s 2011 song “Mama’s Broken Heart,” in their shirts which read “Hide Your Crazy and Start Acting Like a Lady.” The narrator of this song has recently experienced a break-up, and vehemently expresses her grief over this loss. The song contrasts the speaker’s desire to publicly vocalize her pain with her mother’s urging to mask her distress (as the mother-speaker phrases it, “powder your nose, paint your toes, line your lips, and keep ’em closed/Cross your legs, dot your I’s, and never let ’em see you cry.”)
With these T-shirts only featuring one phrase from the song, it is difficult to know how creators mean for these garments to be interpreted. The speaker in Lambert’s song questions the wisdom of concealing her real, complicated self under a polished feminine façade. However, pulling out this one line from the song makes these T-shirts read as a useful piece of advice for wearers to follow–suggesting that women should, indeed, learn to successfully “hide their crazy” under a smooth and pleasing (if also deceptive and artificial) mask of feminine gentility.
A similar contradiction runs through the “Don’t Care” series of T-shirts sold by Rural Art and Design (run by an unnamed vendor out of Trenton, Missouri) and StateLine Graphics (a shop run by Holley Burlinson out of Baker, Florida.) These shirts read “River Hair Don’t Care,” “Camping Hair Don’t Care,” and “Boat Hair Don’t Care.” These shirts’ messaging is undermined by the way these products are presented. Seeming to highlight a move away from conventional ideals of femininity (by focusing on outdoorsiness and a blithe disregard for physical appearance), the fact that these shirts are modeled by young, conventionally attractive women whose hair is meticulously styled and whose makeup is flawless reinforces the notion that while a “country girl” should seem not to care about her appearance, she in reality needs to consistently look polished. This ostensible liberation from maintaining a meticulous self-presentation thus puts another burden on women–to go camping and boating while also maintaining seemingly effortless (but actually carefully crafted) standard of beauty.
This contradictory messaging is also present in the shirts for young girls Ashley Frese sells on her shop The Farmer Took a Wife, which she runs out of Columbus, Nebraska. In introducing these shirts, Frese notes that she “wanted to do custom shirts for my daughters, as I’m not a girly girl and I hated the princess shirts in the store. I wanted empowerment, farm and sporty girl shirts for my girls.” These shirts feature slogans such as “Forget glass slippers this princess wears boots” and “When other girls want to be princesses, I want to be a Farm Girl.” In some respects, these shirts push against the traditional “girly-girl”ness Frese expresses distaste for. Both of these shirts are created in a sporty, streamlined style, devoid of lace, bows, or any other details that would mark them as explicitly feminine, are not produced in conventionally feminine colors (being black and green, rather than the more traditional pink or purple), and affirm a girl’s desire, not to be a princess, but rather a farm girl.
However, the empowering nature of these shirts is limited, as they encourage their wearers to dream of being “farm girls”–but notably not farmers. These shirts also possess contradictory messaging about fantasies of princesshood, as they persist in defining their wearers as princesses–just as princesses who have forsaken their slippers for boots. These products thus echo the messaging of clothing targeted to adult women: that being strong and tough is desirable, but only when carefully paired with markers of conventional femininity.
Many of the shirts sold on these sites also focus on ideals of heterosexual romantic love and marriage, framing wifehood as a central (if not the central) identity for women. In her WHD in GA shop, which Michelle Woltz runs out of Canton, Georgia, she features a T-shirt with the title of the Dixie Chicks’ 1999 song “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Of this product, Woltz asserts “[a]ll of us southern girls hope for a cowboy to come and take us away!” Claiming that all women (at least, all Southern women) hope for a dashing man to sweep into their lives erases the experiences of queer women, and positions heterosexual women’s central role as passively waiting for a man to rescue them from their current circumstances.
Other shops emphasize wifehood as central to women’s lives and identities, with CountrySquared (run by Jenny Walz out of Columbus, Wisconsin) featuring shirts that read “Farmer’s Wife” and “Farmer’s Wife. Yes, he’s working. No, I don’t know when he’ll be home. Yes, we’re still married. No, he’s not imaginary.” As one might expect given its name, The Farmer Took a Wife also features multiple products that highlight the centrality of wifehood. This shop sells “Blessed Life, Farmer’s Wife,” “The best women marry farmers,” and “Farm wife: feeding the people who feed the world” shirts for women, and his and hers “Farmer” and “Farmer’s Wife” for couples. CountrySquared and The Farmer Took a Wife also feature different versions of an “I vow to always love you during [X] season” shirts for women (with those seasons being calving, planting, and harvesting.)
These shirts make the invisible labor and challenges of farming wifehood visible, underlining the loneliness which can result from farmers’ long working hours and the emotional strain which this isolation can place on women, and articulating the vital importance of the domestic labor women do for their spouses and households. Yet even as these products recognize wives’ unpaid physical and emotional labor, they do not question this labor being women’s proper work to do. Through these products, women are defined primarily as “the wife of”; as helpmeets who provide resources to men (who do the most meaningful kinds of work in the world.)
Several shirts also focus on women being defined through their marriages (or pending and/or aspired to marriages) to hunters. Both Boundless Apparel and StateLine Graphics feature shirts that assert that its wearer is either a “Trophy Wife” or a “Future Trophy Wife.” These shirts thus troublingly reinforce the idea that women are analogous to the deer their spouses hunt–framing women, not as autonomous individuals, but rather as beautiful prey that their husbands have effectively “hunted” and captured.
The shops Backwoods Gypsy, StateLine Graphics, and WHD in GA all also emphasize the theme of women’s primary identity as being the romantic partner of a male hunter, featuring a shirt reminding male viewers to “Love me like you love [X] season,” with the seasons in question being deer, turkey, and duck. These products underline the idea that their wearers’ male partners will not (without prompting) value their female spouses to the same degree they do their leisure time. These products at once highlight and make light of inequities in heterosexual relationships, in which wives need to gently rebuke their spouses into loving and caring for them as much as they do their (conventionally masculine) hobbies.
While the majority of the shirts on these sites focus on the domestic and personal, they do also make more overtly political statements, advocating for conservative politicians and causes. StateLine Graphics sell a “Trump” and a “Trump: Make America Great Again” shirt. GK Apparel (run by Krysta Oxenrider out of Cedar City, Utah) features both a police flag shirt, and a “Stand for the Flag, Kneel for the Cross” shirt (a slogan which at once emphasizes the wearer’s Christianity, and critiques the “take a knee” movement, made most famous by football player Colin Kaepernick, in which players kneel during the national anthem at sporting events to protest police brutality against people and communities of color.)
These sites also express support for guns and gun culture, with Gritz and Grace (run by Christina, who does not provide her last name, out of Rathdrum, Idaho) featuring a shirt reading “[g]irls who like hunting, fishing, and guns are not weird, they are a gift from God” and The Farmer Took a Wife offering garments intended for a father and infant daughter which read “Guns Don’t Kill People—Dads with Pretty Daughters Do” and “Pretty Daughter,” respectively. While Gritz and Grace’s shirt in some ways questions conventional notions of gender that define an interest in guns as only appropriate for boys and men, the messaging of these shirts remains fundamentally conservative. Selling their shirts in an era of heightened concerns about gun control (particularly following the fall 2017 Las Vegas shootings and the winter 2018 Sherman Douglas High School shootings), these shirts indicate continued strong support for gun culture–affirming girls who express interest in guns, and making light of violent acts committed with guns (specifically, violent acts committed by men, because of their perceived right to control the bodies and sexuality of the girls and women in their families.)
While Etsy shops run by and for “country girls” have the potential to open up space for rural female consumers in a persistently urban-centered fashion marketplace, these sites are notably conservative in their visions of who rural women are, and what their proper place is, in the world.
 Backwoods Gypsy. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/243559145/lifted-trucks-and-lipgloss-country-music?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=lifted%20trucks%20and%20lipgloss&ref=sr_gallery-1-1; Enid and Elle. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/526133804/boots-lace-lots-of-grace-boots-lace?ga_search_query=boots&ref=shop_items_search_1
 Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Genius Lyrics. https://genius.com/Miranda-lambert-mamas-broken-heart-lyrics
 StateLine Graphics. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/269270721/river-hair-dont-care-racerback-tank-top?ga_search_query=river+hair+don%26%2339%3Bt+care&ref=shop_items_search_1; StateLine Graphics. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/236297961/camping-hair-dont-care-womens-tee?ga_search_query=camping+hair+don%26%2339%3Bt+care&ref=shop_items_search_2; Rural Art and Design. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/shop/RuralArtAndDesign?search_query=don%27t+care
 The Farmer Took a Wife. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/512687068/country-girl-tank-top-farm-girl-shirt?ga_search_query=boots&ref=shop_items_search_2; The Farmer Took a Wife. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/483467781/farm-girl-farmers-daughter-princess?ga_search_query=Farm+Girl&ref=shop_items_search_13
 The Farmer Took a Wife. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheFarmerTookaWife?ref=shop_sugg&search_query=wife
 CountrySquared. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/shop/CountrySquared?ref=shop_sugg&search_query=i+vow
 Boundless Apparel. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/514463237/trophy-wife-tank-top-trophy-wife-shirt?ga_search_query=deer+antlers&ref=shop_items_search_1; StateLine Graphics. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/shop/StateLineGraphics?ref=shop_sugg&search_query=future+trophy+wife
 Boundless Apparel. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/219073856/love-me-like-you-love-deer-season-t?ga_search_query=love+me+like&ref=shop_items_search_1; StateLine Graphics. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/494099917/love-me-like-you-love-deer-season-t?ga_search_query=love+me+like&ref=shop_items_search_2; WHD in GA. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/171302620/love-me-like-you-love-deer-season-shirt?ga_search_query=love+me+like&ref=shop_items_search_2
 StateLine Graphics. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/shop/StateLineGraphics?ref=shop_sugg&search_query=trump
 Gritz and Grace. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/465958143/womans-glitter-hunting-shirt-girl-hunter?ga_search_query=gun&ref=shop_items_search_1; The Farmer Took a Wife. Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/listing/509783175/dad-daughter-shirts-daddy-daughter?ga_search_query=gun&ref=shop_items_search_1