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What is Dark Academia?

Lior Torenberg
Lior Torenberg
February 9, 2024

If you’re part of the dark academia world, you might read dusty, first edition books in a gothic library. You might wear sweaters and scarves or a matching school uniform a la classic British boarding schools. Perhaps you like to drink hot, bitter black tea while perusing vintage maps in your candle-lit study. In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of what it means to belong to the dark academia, talk about some of the responses to the subculture online, and answer the question: how do you fully embody an aesthetic? 

Introduction to Dark Academia

Dark academia is a subculture and aesthetic pursuit of all things gothic and academic.

It’s a moody foray down memory lane to the romanticized halls of Oxford and Cambridge, custom-built for disillusioned youth who grew up watching movies like “Dead Poets Society” and reading books like Harry Potter series and “Gothic Twist: Route 666 Adventure” and perhaps read “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” once they got a little older. 

Can you feel the vibe? Let’s dive into the secret history of of dark academia fashion and fully analyze the mysterious trend inspired by ivy league universities and elite college aesthetic of the past.

From Tumblr Roots to Recent Years

While the origins of the dark academia aesthetic can be traced back to Tumblr around 2015, the trend really hit the mainstream during the pandemic when schools closed down and an environment of learning and serious study was due for some softened reminiscence.

The dark academia fashion was potentially strengthened by the return of student loan payments in October 2023, when the reality of higher education’s cost clashed against the dreamy ideals of the past and images it evokes. 

Long story short, this academia trend can also serve as a language to communicate the dark struggles of modern-day students, which is way more important than superficial “back-to-school” fashion ideas.

Codes of Dark Academia Aesthetics

In a Venn diagram of aesthetics, dark academia would be bordered by its goth, cozy, preppy, and witchy neighbors. And like these neighbors, it’s both a style and a lifestyle, both an aspirational pursuit and a guide to living, complete with fashion choices, music playlists, recipes, and even worldviews. 

At its core, dark academia is defined by longing — it is a sweet and melancholy pursuit of a life that perhaps only ever existed in books or movies. It is a desire to find beauty in the mundane, to bring rose-colored glasses to the harder times at present. 

Like many internet subcultures, its reaches extend beyond the internet into actual life. People who follow the dark academia aesthetic might wear certain clothes, read certain literature, have certain hobbies, even eat certain foods. 

In recent years, the dark academia trend has gained power and is on the rise, not only among university students spending time in prestigious institutions and researching liberal arts topics. The dark academia aesthetic focuses more on the vibe of all things intellectual rather than the fact of belonging to the actual world of Ivy League.

Dark Academia Appetite

What does the dark academia diet look like, you might ask? Probably not bright and fresh foods like sushi or salad. Dark academics might drink coffee or wine or tea, might eat plain and classically western foods like jam on toast, croissants, and oatmeal. A dark academic might eat the kind of food you would see in a still life painting: ripe fruit, aged cheese, crusty bread. 

We have romantic candles, dark and decorative tomatoes, and succulent steak accompanied by a glass of red wine, all eaten amidst the quiet and charming backdrop of a dimly-lit library. That’s the academic elegance!

Dark Academia Playlist

And what’s the soundtrack to this classic meal? A search for “dark academia” on Spotify reveals countless artists, albums, and custom playlists highlighting the aesthetic’s moody, rainy day notes. Dark academics tend towards instrumental, classical music as the backdrop to their days. 

To live a life of dark academia is to strive for sepia, to bring nostalgia into your day-to-day and romanticize each moment — and classical music helps with that. It also helps with studying and reading, classic dark academia pastimes. 

Here’s a Dark Academia Study Playlist to help you work your way through an illustrated botany textbook, or write letters to your distant relatives. 

Dark Academia Fashion

There are unlimited guides online about how to dress for the dark academic style. From time to time, dark academia becomes a fashion trend, breaking through college campuses and academic community.

There is definite overlap with the cozy fall aesthetic, librarian aesthetic, and thrift-store chic aesthetic. Think: faded college sweatshirts with pleated skirts, knee high socks, tweed jackets, pleated pants with loafers and a loose button-down. All in a muted and dark colour palette replete with dark brown, beige, dark green, forest green, and maroon. Perfect to walk through the mysterious corridors of old institutions, whether is an old-money boarding school vibe or a posh greek architecture themed school.

What does dark academia fashion look like in the summertime? For inspiration, I like to imagine Wednesday Addams at summer camp, or Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd on the beach.

What image of summertime dark academia fashion comes to mind for you?

Dark Academia Books

Exploring the world of dark academia fashion extends far beyond delving into a literary realm that captures the essence of intellectual life, mystery, and timeless classics. So called dark academia books often feature protagonists navigating ivy league universities, unraveling enigmatic plots, and grappling with the complexities of human nature.

Think haunting tales set in gothic libraries, secret societies hidden within the hallowed halls, and protagonists with a penchant for classical literature and philosophy. Authors like Oscar Wilde, Donna Tartt, Tana French, Daphne du Maurier often find themselves on the bookshelves of those enamored with the dark academia aesthetic. It can be classic literature, long history textbooks, or contemporary poetry and prose, depending on current passion, focus and inspiration.

Dark academia students like to dig into art, poetry, and numerous niche subjects such as gothic architecture or shadowy classic greek history. With the contemporary power of social media, you can easily fall into the rabbit hole of other students’ academic life inspired by dark academia lifestyle, and of course, discover academia-proof literature recommendations.

The allure of dusty bookshops, leather-bound volumes, and the scent of aged paper permeates these literature works, providing a rich and atmospheric backdrop for readers who yearn for intellectual escapades in the pages of a good book.

Criticism of Dark Academia

Because it primarily draws on a western canon of art and humanities, some have called the dark academia aesthetic eurocentric. The authors and musicians it honors mostly hail from Europe, and the liberal education it romanticizes is inaccessible to most. Particularly, black students and academics from families with low income put an emphasis on the pressure of this trend wanting to bring a sense of “real life” to their university education.

But while the dark academia aesthetic may glamorize higher education, it does not require those who take part in it to have knowledge and the pleasure of learning — in fact, the online community around dark academia values self-education and curiosity higher than official diplomas or Ivy League clout.

This comes back to the core heart of the aesthetic: longing. Like all aesthetics, it is in part aspirational, and is defined by the counterculture pursuit of what doesn’t currently exist.

The style that dark academia promotes can be achieved for less, and classical music can be found for free online, but it is true that the dark academia fashion may glamorize an inherently expensive lifestyle of personal renaissance, of leaning into art, writing, learning history, etc. That might be difficult to pull off for most people outside of university who are confronted with the “school of life”, meaning everyday concerns, like working and paying bills. But light academia won’t help here either.

Evolution of Dark Academia

Dark academia creators on social media have been trying to introduce more diversity of all kinds into the subculture, a process of discovery, creation, and expansion. Ariel Yisrael argued on her blog that dark academia content does exist in other “secret societies”, it just hasn’t been labeled as such. 

Like this excerpt from the poem “Desire” by Langston Hughes:

“Desire to us

Was like a double death,

Swift dying

Of our mingled breath,

Evaporation

Of an unknown strange perfume

Between us quickly

In a naked

Room.”

What’s more gothic and romantic and yearning than that? 

As Sujena Soumyanath wrote for The Daily Free Press:

“Despite the rose-tinted filter the subculture puts on lasting legacies of harmful elitism, it has also expanded access to this selective world. Now, an outfit a 19th-century old-money Yale student would have worn is accessible to anyone willing to save a few pins and visit the vintage store.”

Embody Dark Academia

So, how do you fully embody the academic aesthetics? 

The answer: any way you want to. 

Those who love the world of dark academia are welcome to partake in it in any way, and to any extent, that makes them happy. If certain fashion trends, hobbies, ancient art, music, classic literature, TV shows, or movies help you capture the dark academia mood in your day-to-day, then that’s wonderful.

But all you need is a sense of longing and a pursuit of learning, and you’re well on your way. Focus on your story = your academia rules!

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