Born on social media, dark academia sees users posting photos and videos that romanticise a passion for art and knowledge. It’s stacks of books piled high; longing for a New England university campus you’ll never visit; the corduroy, plaids and tweeds of academic autumnal fashion; getting lost in the library like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Although the origins of dark academia remain unclear, its genesis appears to be a heady mixture of a few key cultural works. Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History is the trend’s foundational text but films like Dead Poets Society (1989) and Kill Your Darlings (2013) also serve as essential influences. Like the books and films that inspired it, dark academia draws an idealised version of campus life, typically at a hallowed and historic university.
Importantly, dark academia captures a kind of nostalgia for a life which is yet to be lived – dreams of being an art history student at Oxbridge or studying classical literature at Harvard. Crucially, like many other internet-born, aesthetics-led trends, dark academia is hyper-curated and hyper-performed. Like #studygram and #studyblr, popular hashtags on Instagram and Tumblr respectively which also aestheticise studying, dark academia turns an everyday activity like reading on the sofa with a cup of tea into a performance for an online audience, amped up with piano music, non-prescription spectacles and sepia-toned filters. As anyone who has ever attended a messy, WKD-stained freshers' week will attest, this cinematic version of the university experience rarely becomes reality but, in 2020, dark academia is providing a dreamy digital substitute for all the students whose plans for further education and freedom have been paused by the pandemic.
The dark academia hashtag has 93.1 million TikTok views and 200,000 posts on Instagram and, as we welcome autumn, it continues to gain traction. Yazmin How, TikTok's UK editorial lead, says: "It is always inspiring to see our community shape and respond to a new trend like #darkacademia and really make it their own. We first saw this trend in the summer and it’s now having a resurgence, inspired by everything from autumn fashion and education, to the gothic novel to Harry Potter." The styling is an important part of dark academia, with countless videos and posts providing inspiration. If you're a beginner, think Smiths-era Morrissey meets Brideshead Revisited: tweed blazers with elbow patches, knitted sweater vests, classic trench coats, Oxford brogues and a plethora of cardigans.
Many students-to-be have experienced the longest, seemingly never-ending summer holiday of their lives. Dark academia sees them longing for the schooling they had always felt an affinity for but which now feels out of reach. Yukta, 16, runs an Instagram account where she posts dark academia outfits. She explains how she discovered dark academia last year and that it naturally fits with her personality as a bibliophile; others, though, are far newer to the aesthetic. Lauren, who creates TikToks exploring the fashion intersections of dark academia and Harry Potter characters, says that she was drawn to the trend at the very beginning of lockdown, finding it comforting. "The aesthetic is a way to make the most of your current situation," Lauren says. "It appeals to me because there’s something kind of mysterious and aloof about it. Studying classics at a university in a cobblestoned town just seems outside of your run-of-the-mill experience." In these uncertain times, it's perfectly plausible to want to submerge yourself in daydreams and romanticised idealisations.
Cottagecore is another trend to emerge this year which is rooted in fantasy and escape. Both cottagecore and dark academia reject our current reality, their deliberate romanticism a kind of countercultural response to political failings and the interminable tragedy of a global pandemic. While cottagecore relies on the charm of nature and plush outdoor spaces which are not easily reached, dark academia is celebrated for its accessibility. To embrace dark academia, you can simply wear vintage cable-knit sweaters and carry around charity shop-bought Jane Austen books. It requires no stately homes or schedules allowing for spontaneous day trips, just an analogue-inspired photo filter and a penchant for reading in your bedroom.
Like cottagecore, though, dark academia has been criticised for its elitism and Eurocentrism, which is to be expected when an entire subculture dedicates itself to the historically white aesthetic of the Western literary canon. But similarly to its sister trend, it's being reclaimed by people who have been rejected from traditional colonial institutions. In 2019, just 22% of the University of Oxford's undergraduate intake were from BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds but in the online world, people of colour are claiming the academic ethos and aesthetic for themselves. Sumaiyya, a hijabi woman who runs a book club dedicated to immigrant and Muslim stories, explains: "There is potential for dark academia lovers like myself to insert our own cultural contexts. That’s why it’s a great subculture; anyone can contribute and add their own ways of seeing and experiencing dark academia."
The trend has come under fire for romanticising mental health issues, too. Rachel, 23, a dark academia Instagrammer and TikToker who goes by the username @caffeaulait, explains the double-edged sword of dark academia’s newfound popularity. "With COVID-19, students are longing for the 'college experience' that they’re missing out on right now and are living vicariously through mood boards and novels romanticising campus life."
However, she points out, this also comes with intellectual elitism and pressures to keep up with the standards of work, which so often break students down. It's often forgotten that the literature which inspired this aesthetic – The Secret History, M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – creates idealised but exaggerated stereotypes of highly strung but ultimately unhappy students. Research has shown a steady decline in mental health among students over the last 10 years: one in five students report having a mental health condition and one in four say they experience loneliness, according to a 2019 survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). Sumaiyya agrees that within the trend there is a clear "romanticisation of toxic habits, moral corruption and even mental health issues". While these subjects should not be stigmatised, neither should they be aspired to for the sake of an aesthetic. After all, few of these novels have happy endings, highlighting that dark academia is a cautionary tale.
Having said this, dark academia is liberating for its users through its space for creativity. TikTok creators are using the hashtag to share content around their fashion choices, literature recommendations and romanticised academic institutions, breaking down conventional stereotypes in the process. Although the aesthetic is largely reminiscent of men's looks from the 1930s and '40s, nothing in dark academia is given traditional masculine or feminine signifiers; the trend emphasises a dismantling of gender stereotypes, embracing gender fluidity instead. From A Little Life to Kill Your Darlings, campus stories often feature explicit or underlying queer themes, something TikTok creators have fully embraced.
Yet this representation is ostensible; Rachel questions The Secret History’s reputation, highlighting that it's "dominated by European cultures and white characters" and "shows a good deal of racism and homophobia (despite queer-baiting)." Many of the characters in these stories suffer tragic fates, often because of their sexuality, which raises questions about the types of representation that should be praised.
It is right to critique dark academia but it is also an aesthetic worth celebrating, especially since it has blossomed in such a troubling time. As Sumaiyya says, it is "a way for bookworms and bibliophiles to reclaim their bookish identity and feel pride, especially if they were bullied and ridiculed for being bookish and nerdy" in school.
When the pandemic took away students' opportunities to geek out, dark academia was there to fill the void. Right now it seems only natural to want to leave the outside world behind and escape into fantasy and fiction, into grand buildings where curiosity, friendship, the pursuit of knowledge and a wealth of great fashion are prized above all.