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Let Them Eat — Retro, Instagram-Friendly — Cake

Pass the rustic carrot slice. Colourful, over-the-top retro cakes are back in a big way.

Natalie Reilly

Embellished with pastel pink and yellow piping, topped with glace cherries and emblazoned with the phrase ‘Kiss Me’: no, it’s not a Doris Day movie title, it’s just one of the over-the-top retro cakes that Alice Bennett makes and delivers on a daily basis. 

“It’s just about trying to find a bit of beauty in life,” says the Melbourne cake maker. “I think as humans it’s very easy to hone in on the negative things happening, so if you can have something that’s controlled and beautiful, and delicious—how lovely is that?” 

Bennett began her business, Miss Trixie, as a side-hustle in 2013. Then, when COVID-19 hit and she lost her job in production, it became a full-time gig.

But it wasn’t until she received a request for “a cake that really looked like a cake” – and drew inspiration from everything from Marie Antoinette to “hideous 80s bathrooms” that her business really took off. When she posted a photo of the vintage-looking cake on Instagram, it blew up.

For locked-down Melburnites, who could no longer attend events and weddings, the colourful cakes proved to be the escapism they didn’t know they needed. Plus, she says, “I think it helped that Bridgerton came out at the same time – it was a bit of a pop culture moment for that look.”

Bennett is just one cake-maker extraordinaire who’s helped launch a fully-fledged movement for piped, frilled, maraschino cherry-bedecked retro throwbacks. What began as a bold statement of subversiveness and joy in the face of the pandemic, (who can forget the pale pink and mint “f– covid” cakes that were sent around as gifts to those who had events cancelled) has become a trend in its own right. Just ask style maven Nadia Fairfax, who chose a three-tiered baby blue extravaganza for her recent wedding.

Former stylist Rosie Meehan opened her bakery, Added Sugar, in Sydney ‘s Redfern, last July. Starting a business in the middle of lockdown is not normally considered the wisest of economic decisions, but almost immediately orders started coming in for 1950s style cakes with a dash of irony.

She’s now averaging 15 a week. “I think they’re just fun,” she says of her whipped cream, glace-cherry-topped creations. “People seem to really love their kitschy, mid-century appeal.” 

The style is certainly nothing new, so why the sudden resurgence? After all, for years, food trends have veered towards more earnest desserts that hint at rustic kitchens, homemade baking and cake-stalls.

In some ways the trend can be traced to the colour-soaked maximalism that’s so popular in fashion and interiors right now. Branded ‘Grandmillenial chic’, this is an aesthetic that eschews clean lines and embraces old-fashion chintz and kitsch. Think cottage-core, smocked bodices and coloured glassware.

Then again, the popularity of these artful and carefully constructed cakes offer a sense of order and control that’s been missing after the past two years of floods, fires, wars and a global pandemic.  

After all, there’s nothing more controlled than perfectly piped rosettes and Swiss buttercream icing with nary a crumb to be seen. Certainly, says, Bennett, lockdown has fuelled a hunger for whimsical, decadent desserts.

 “Most of the retro cakes ordered now are for significant events but after two years of lockdowns and isolations, I have plenty of people saying, stuff it, it’s been a hard couple of years, let’s have the OTT cake for the random birthdays too,” says Bennett. 

For Helen Addison-Smith, of Ice-cream Social, the rise of retro cakes owes much to her sense of nostalgia for a bygone era.

“I inherited a Betty Crocker cookbook that was sent to my Mum,” says Addison-Smith, who bakes ironic, icing-heavy cakes in Melbourne. “I loved it growing up because it seemed like some utopia of homeliness and comfort. The families looked happy, and no one was ever worried about gaining weight or tooth decay.”

It also explains why shows, such as The Great British Bake Off, have risen in popularity too. Nobody cares about eating their greens if Armageddon is around the corner. But, says Addison-Smith, it’s not all a reaction to bad, sad news. There’s a joyful, feminist silver lining threaded throughout the trend, too.

“I’m obsessed with this style of making because it is a glorification of women’s work, a way in which housewives could make art that could pass as birthday cakes,” she says. “A source of creativity in a world of constraints.”

And a sign, perhaps, that even in the darkest moments, there is always room for cake.


BY Natalie Reilly

Natalie Reilly is freelance writer for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Vogue, Marie Claire and Australian Financial Review

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