At some point last year, during a period drama phase, I finally became intimately acquainted with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The 2006 film about a young Austrian woman’s transition from noble nobody to the last queen of France depicts a world where gossip and status are the most valuable currency, finery is everything and decadence is best enjoyed smothered in cream. The explicit over-the-topness of the cakes in which Kirsten Dunst’s Marie indulges hammers home the idea that sweet treats and desserts – especially heavily iced cakes – are at their most enjoyable when in their most indulgent form. Intricately frosted, laden with ribboning and piping, and generously adorned with fruits.
Cakes like these are not always popular. The sweetness and attention to detail are culturally feminised and seen as frivolous, the literal layers of indulgence deemed far too excessive for regular consumption. Plus, the skill and time involved in creating these aesthetic feasts means they are largely inaccessible. Either you can’t make them, you can’t afford them or you can’t justify buying them.
It’s not really a surprise that this kind of baked decadence wasn’t that present in our first lockdown. With bakeries closed and IRL celebrations cancelled, our sweet treats were limited to what we could whip up ourselves (or manage to snag in a Tesco delivery). It was a time of resourceful banana bread and wholesome sourdough. Baking was a form of self-care but it was also a form of self-reliance. The act of making something in a loaf tin and posting it on Instagram was a way to signal that you were handling everything just fine, thanks for asking.
But as the months went on and the brief respite of summer led back into a second and then a third lockdown, this kind of self-sufficiency fell by the wayside. Into its place stepped intricate pastel buttercream and delicate sponge. People wanted elaborate excess, they wanted to feel special. They were fed up. They wanted an outrageous cake.
Ione Gamble is the editor-in-chief of Polyester, the feminist fashion and culture zine that urges you to "have faith in your own bad taste". With her eye for aesthetic trends and the 'zine’s history of celebrating and shooting really elaborate cakes, Ione has seen their popularity rise and fall in the public consciousness.
"These cakes are kind of a real symbol of unapologetic femininity in my mind," she tells R29. "They've been a symbol in Polyester right from our first issue in which we had a series of cakes iced with sharp quotes about the pitfalls of conventional relationships. This followed with our third birthday cake adorned with 'another year, another existential crisis'; so I've always been obsessed. I think they represent excess and embracing being too much in the best way; to lots of people these cakes are gaudy and hideous but to me they are beautiful and biting at the same time."
While we wouldn’t have known it then, the first lockdown held in it a sense of optimism about what all this newly found spare time could mean, leading to an uptick in wholesome hobbies and sincerely cultivated sourdough starters. Unless you were a dogged pessimist, you probably felt that things would return to some kind of normal within a year. Now, more than 12 months later, the popular mood is apathy mixed with hysteria. The only way to escape is to lean into something outrageous.
"With our ability for joy being so restricted at the moment, a decadent cake is such a gorgeous and easy way to lift your day!" Ione tells R29. "They look great and taste even better, [plus] ordering from one of the bakers is supporting a small business. We've missed out on so much this year that something as small as ordering a cake can really feel like a massive event."
The trend for these bakes has been particularly popular on Instagram and TikTok, leading to the increase in the number of kitsch cakes you’re seeing on your feed as well as an explosion in popularity for the platforms' independent bakers. Coven Bakery, April's Baker, Aliya Bakes Cakes and Lili Vanilli are all UK-based bakers who’ve been taking orders through the pandemic – for corporate clients like Gucci and Simone Rocha x H&M but also for individuals who want to celebrate a friend’s birthday or commemorate exciting news.
Made By Nez is one of these bakers who says that the past year has been "a bit of a whirlwind" on that front. "I am still stunned by how many people get in touch," she tells R29. "Lockdown has also allowed me to build this business up so as I have grown, the trend has grown."
The individual orders she’s seen tend to stick to the theme of life events – birthdays, engagements, babies – and are a small way to regain the sense of frivolous celebration we lost in the pandemic. They can be sincere offerings of joy during an otherwise grim time, and make sure that significant moments are not forgotten. "I just got an order for an 'end of cancer treatment' cake, which I think is so wonderful," she adds.
According to Ione, there is a political element to these cakes' popularity, too. "The resurrection of them is a bit of a clap back at traditional 'female' roles in the home: that we should be housewives and bake and be content with pretty things. Our use of these cakes proves you can love the aesthetic but also enrich them with modern messages and context."
This mentality is shown in people's tongue-in-cheek approaches to the messaging iced on top. Whether it’s lamenting how shit the past year has been or just calling someone a 'hunk', there is a self-awareness to what these cakes mean to people right now. The text on the cakes, as well as the cakes themselves, carries a duality when you order one for someone – we know that maybe you and your one flatmate cannot consume this much buttercream, and that this is A Bit Much, but we also think that A Bit Much is precisely the amount of cake we all deserve right now. Everything, frankly, is A Bit Much. So who’s going to stop you?
It is precisely because they are so antithetical to ideas of health and restraint that we need our Marie Antoinette-esque bakes. There is no better time than a year into a pandemic to revisit the unbearable sugar high of eating birthday cake at the age of six.
As Nez tells R29, we all need a "bit of escapism in these dark times".