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What is dark academia? Here’s a mini style guide into the brooding subculture

By Malavika Pradeep

Jan 19, 2021

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It’s 2021 and you happen to have a tremendous amount of free time holed up in your apartment, thanks to an endless pandemic. So you decide to ditch your pursuit of meta selfies and whip up a new subculture from scratch instead. The subculture then moves on to gather a cult-like following with its own Wikipedia page and sellers on Depop, which you didn’t really expect.

This has been the typical itinerary for viral TikTok trends as of late. Phenomena like uwu girls and weirdcore have become the app’s pandemic-born excuse to keep viewers engaged within the confines of their own home. So what’s up with TikTok’s booming obsession with boarding schools, tweed jackets and Vivaldi? Let’s start by breaking down various realms of the brooding aesthetic.

What is dark academia?

Dark academia, also watered down as the ‘fall aesthetic’, romanticises classic literature with a specific passion for self-discovery, knowledge and learning. Stemmed from upper-class European culture, it targets nostalgia for the 19th and early 20th century private schools in England—featuring overlaps with both gothicism and American prep. Followers of dark academia are drawn to gothic, Beaux-Arts and neoclassical architecture, marble sculptures, calligraphy, journalling and boarding school imagery.

The aesthetic was first picked up by TikTok users between the age of 15 and 25 as a response to the physical shutdown of schools and colleges during the pandemic. The trend, which is credited with over 1.7 billion views on TikTok and 1.2 million posts on Instagram, brings students attending classes from home a sense of community that they once developed back in school.

While the aesthetic is not inherently negative, it has come under scrutiny for its alleged encouragement of nihilism, classist attitudes, caffeine addiction and insomnia. However, dark academia—which initially stemmed from Tumblr—has now evolved into a full-blown subculture where followers meet up physically, suggest books, movies and music along with study tips and fashion inspiration.

What do dark academists wear?

Dark academia fashion hinges on elite and vintage dressing as a montage of different historical periods. Majorly inspired by American prep, the aesthetic centres around school uniforms from the 1940s featuring blazers, pleated skirts and regimental striped ties. While cashmere, wool and tweed are recommended fabrics, patterns are kept minimal—with plaids and argyle being the most preferred ones.

Autumn or fall is the favourite season of dark academists. The essence of the subculture goes hand-in-hand with this time of year as the aesthetic involves the layering of pieces over each other. Tweed blazers with elbow patches are a must-have, while sweaters, professional button-ups and ornate blouses add to the autumnal and bookish character of the enthusiast. Pair these up with formal dress pants, pencil skirts, pinafores dresses or structured cardigans to nail the coveted look.

In terms of accessories, dark academists often express their love for gender-neutral leather messenger bags and totes with art prints. Remember, frills douse the literary thrills of the aesthetic. Instead opt for ornate details like ties, pocket squares, cufflinks, tortoise shell-rimmed glasses and timeless brooches. The basic colour palette one should keep in mind further include black, beige, dark brown, forest green, dark orange, cream, gold and burgundy.

While the trend relies heavily on thrift stores and second-hand finds, dark academics on Tumblr often recommend brands like Ralph Lauren, Brandy Melville, COS, Aritzia, Madewell and UNIQLO to find some of the ultimate pieces channelling the look.

What are their hobbies?

Think about what teens at Ivy League did during their free time in the 19th century. Now switch that up with modern-day video games, social networking, digital book clubs and crafts.

Apart from chess and rummy, dark academics adore video games like The Last Door, Bully and Hitman. They are self-taught knitters, painters and gardeners. An ideal outing for them includes museums, art galleries, churches, libraries and graveyards—remember: they’re intellectuals but also edgy. They love writing poems, binding books, reading philosophy, playing instruments and practising calligraphy as well as embroidery. Picnics in forests accompanied with wine, bread, cheese and upscale traditional dishes are also in the mix. A necessary sight in a dark academic’s room additionally consists of stacked books, cups of tea and antique postcards written with ink.

@jjennynguyenn

Restoring my parchment wares #foryou #foryoupage #fyp #art #asmr #darkacademia #vintage

♬ original sound - Jenny Nguyen

What do they read and watch?

You can probably guess some of the authors and directors dark academics love. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, A Study In Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Shakespeare Secret by Jennifer Lee Carrell and, of course, Dead Poets Society by NH Kleinbaum are some must-reads before one’s initiation into the subculture. The works of Scott F Fitzgerald, Maya Angelou and Edgar Allan Poe are also well appreciated along with other authors of classic literature like Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin and Donna Tartt.

Good Will Hunting, Pride and Prejudice, Mona Lisa Smile, Hugo, and The Great Gatsby list among the top five movies to watch while TV shows include Mindhunter, Brideshead Revisited, Sherlock, A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Queen’s Gambit.

What are the subgenres of the subculture?

1. Light academia

Light academia is an aesthetic that is the emotional opposite of dark academia. Consisting of lighter themes and visuals, the aesthetic centres around optimism, joy, gratitude, friendship and happy endings. Keeping the love for classic literature, art and history of dark academia intact, this subgenre focuses on enjoying all the little things in life—with key colours including beige, cream, light brown and white.

@babycarrotenthusiast

#academia #darkacademia #lightacademia

♬ original sound - iphilgood

2. Art academia

Art academia revolves around the love for—you guessed it—art. Including sculptures, paintings, sketching, doodling, photography and calligraphy. It has similar roots in learning and interests as both dark and light academia but is unique for its focus on visual arts. Think of it as the rebellious art school cousin of the academia aesthetics if you will. Key colours in art academia include cadmium yellow, dark browns, whites and pretty much the entire rainbow, as long as it’s incorporated into a type of art.

@_arnold_art

#академияискусств #artstudent #artistlife #artacademia

♬ You Never Can Tell - Chuck Berry

3. Chaotic academia

This academic movement intends to normalise haphazard routines, messy habits and banned literature. In comparison to other subgenres, chaotic academia primarily focuses on learning without any considerations for fashion and appearance—all the while normalising the acceptance of messy or seemingly uncomposed traits some students may have in their school life.

@magsekerr

Yay aesthetics pt.2 ~chaotic academia + grunge~ #chaoticacademia #aesthetic #grungeaesthetic #chaoticacademiaaesthetic

♬ Vivaldi Storm - 2CELLOS

4. Darkest academia

Also known as gothic academia, the subgenre is a more serious and mature take on dark academia. Aiming to find beauty in the darkest of places, it focuses on gothic studies, literature, poetry, arts, architecture and music. Key values of the aesthetic include seriousness, maturity, despair and existentialism manifestedin colours like black and dark brown.

@forestwinterae

It is a risk to love, what if it doesn't work out? Ah, but what if it does. - Peter Mc Williams #darkacademia #darkestacademia #maurice1987 #littlewoman #aestheticedit #hogwarts #secretaccount

♬ original sound - Pulse Music Media

5. Cryptid academia

Considered as a more recent spinoff of the academia aesthetics, cryptid academia hinges on its sister aesthetic cryptidcore. It’s all about the fascination for weird and wonderful—with an exclusive emphasis on cryptid journalism, books and dedicated libraries. Key colours include sepia, brown, black, tan and glow-in-the-dark shades with values of mystery, curiosity and adventure.

https://www.tiktok.com/@maxthemortician/video/7046960368542993710

6. Fairy academia

Dubbed as the more feminine, otherworldly offshoot of dark academia, fairy academia is inspired by the aesthetics of Victorian and Edwardian childhood. Here, enthusiasts enjoy learning and education, as well as trickery and scheming. What a fairy thing to do indeed. Featuring overlaps with bloomcore and fairycore, key motifs in the aesthetic include fairy ephemera, ribbons, books and butterflies in pretty pastels, blacks and whites.

All that being said, if you’re looking to date a dark academist, Tumblr has some lovely advice for you: “Write them letters and seal the envelopes with fancy wax seals,” writes one user. “Quote Shakespeare, listen to their 3am rants on how we could’ve heard Oscar Wilde’s voice if he’d had lived just a tad longer,” a second one commented—while another silenced the thread with “just tell them you’ll get your own little library if you move in together.” Who’s that Pokémon? It’s a dark academist with an evergreen love for literature and learning!