What is dark academia? An Etsy seller explains the brooding subculture

By Malavika Pradeep

Updated Jun 1, 2023 at 11:43 AM

Reading time: 8 minutes

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Time and again, here at SCREENSHOT, we’ve been covering various internet aesthetics and subcultures ranging from uwu girls and soft boys to gorpcore and lovecore. Before most of these subcultures mature, however, they are usually yeeted off and swiftly replaced by a new one. But what if there was a subculture out there proving its love for all things ancient while boasting an evergreen demand? Is it even possible for a digital subculture to bleed that deep into the roots of our physical lifestyles? In a bid to break down this overarching trend, we decided to check up on a particular subculture that peaked early 2021 and has remained stable ever since: dark academia.

What is dark academia?

Picked up by young TikTokers as a response to the physical shutdown of schools and colleges during the pandemic, dark academia is a subculture that romanticises classic literature with a passion for knowledge and learning. Stemmed from European culture, it targets nostalgia for the 19th and early 20th century private schools in England.

@cosyfaerie

Vibe with me☕️📚 #darkacademia #darkacademiaaesthetic #vintage #vintagevibes #booktok #aesthetic

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“A thirst for knowledge and a love for old things,” summed up Madeleine Rafell, owner of Harper & Rafell—an Etsy store specialising in vintage and dark academia-themed printed photo packs, custom washi tape and stickers for both journaling and home decor. “The visual aesthetic is heavily influenced by classical art and poetry, Greek mythology and old universities in the UK,” she continued. If Rafell had to choose a city to represent dark academia, it would be Edinburgh. In terms of the classic novels, it would be The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller—although the former “has a lot of problematic themes and lacks diversity.” “I would also include The Mummy film series and the recent Little Women remake as good visual examples [of the subculture],” she added.

Although Rafell was previously aware of the visual side of dark academia thanks to Instagram and Pinterest, it wasn’t until she joined TikTok last year that she started noticing other aspects of the subculture. “There’s a strong overlap between the neurodivergent, queer and disabled communities (which I belong to) with dark academia,” she said, acknowledging how the overlap also extends to a childhood love for Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, Tolkien, and the Narnia series.

“I think this is partly due to these kids feeling very out-of-touch with their surroundings during their childhood, so they lose themselves in fictional worlds that they find comforting,” Rafell mentioned. The Etsy seller also explained how a lot of neurodivergents had Greek mythology or ancient Egypt as a special interest as well. “It’s interesting to contemplate as a lot of these books contain conservative themes or poor representation of people of colour and LGTBQ+ individuals.”

In terms of the reasons backing the enduring interests for these books, Rafell highlighted the common themes of “chosen family, fighting for justice, feeling outcast among your peers, betrayal, abuse and lack of support from adult characters.”

“So even though these books were written by straight, white, conservative and sometimes transphobic authors, the experience of their characters is something marginalised communities connect with,” she added. Thanks for that, J.K. Rowling…

When asked if the seller is a dark academist herself, Rafell mentioned how her first reaction was to say no. “I hardly ever read books anymore, despite being an avid reader well into my teenage years.” Rafell’s love for learning, however, has endured—along with the desire to collect things that make her happy. The seller quoted typewriters, old cameras and books that she had bought because she liked the covers in this regard. “I also traveled to both Scotland and Italy in 2017 and loved the architecture, history and general vibe there. I felt at home in both Edinburgh and Venice and they’ve influenced my design work over the years.”

What is dark academia? An Etsy seller explains the brooding subculture

A brooding gap in the market

Rafell started her Etsy store, Harper & Rafell, in May 2021 to cater exclusively to the subculture. “The idea started last summer, when my sister requested steampunk and dark academia-themed journaling supplies for Christmas,” the seller reminisced, adding how the brand name is an incorporation of her own surname ‘Rafell’ with her sister ‘Harper’.

Back then Rafell followed a lot of journaling accounts on social media and discovered how most enthusiasts bought their products from either Wish, Amazon or Kmart. But the Etsy seller was also quick to notice their inconsistency. “I found that there weren’t a lot of companies catering to this aesthetic,” Rafell said. According to her, scrapbooking and stationery supplies are typically boxed into categories including country florals and shabby chic for crafty mums and grandmothers, rose gold and blush for boss babes (think Kate Spade), Asian-influenced pastels and kawaii-themed stickers for the bullet journaling community, and the overdone, 5-year-old Paris/hot air balloon/carte postale/Victorian aesthetic that’s literally everywhere.

“I wanted a more refined and subtle vintage look for myself and I could also see that there was a gap in the market for dark academia-themed products. Hence I started working on the brand and opened my store.”

So, is there any research that goes behind products that cater exclusively to a subculture? In this case, how does Rafell decide whether a motif or a colour is dark academia-esque? “While studying design at uni, I realised one of my strengths was being able to pull together a collection of images and figure out which ones had the same vibe.” Although the seller doesn’t use a checklist while selecting designs or images, she highlighted certain aesthetic distinctions within dark academia. The list includes brown, beige and cream tones, a grainy-vintage feel, a focus on textures such as stone, marble, ivy, tweed, old paper and leather as well as models with an other-worldly look.

“A lot of this is achieved through editing,” Rafell explained. Although some of the photos the Etsy seller uses are her own, most are sourced from stock image sites—which require significant changes before she’s allowed to sell them. “I also spend a lot of time curating my photo ranges to ensure they have a consistent feel.”

Some of Rafell’s best-selling pieces include the Ivy and Stone Athena collection photo cards which features old buildings, trailing vines, vaulted cathedrals and quiet staircases. The seller dubs the photo set “perfect for lovers of dark academia and dreamers of Hogwarts.” Harper & Rafell’s washi tape sets are yet another popular choice. “One I’m really proud of,” Rafell added.

What is dark academia? An Etsy seller explains the brooding subculture

BookTok and the evergreen demand

As of 19 January 2021, the day when we published our first investigative piece on the subculture, #darkacademia boasted 400 million views on TikTok. Seven months later, it is presently on the verge of hitting 1 billion views on the platform. The content—which was previously restricted to aesthetic fashion trials and outfit ideas—has now branched out into activities like journaling, letter writing, study tips, room decor and tea time recipes to name a few.

The rise of BookTok is yet another factor looped into the evergreen demand of the subculture. At 13.2 billion views, the TikTok trend is currently sending decades-old books up the bestseller lists. One such read is The Song of Achilles that Rafell mentioned earlier. Authored by Madeline Miller in 2012, the book has clocked up 50.6 million views on TikTok to date. The novel currently sits third on The New York Times bestseller list for paperback fiction—selling close to 10,000 copies per week in the US.

When asked about the demand for her products over the pandemic, Rafell credited part of the reason for the creation of Harper & Rafell to the rising art and sticker market on TikTok. According to the seller, the more time people spend at home, the more effort they put into decorating the space around them while picking up new hobbies like journaling. “Dark academia is also a comforting aesthetic to a lot of people. And as reality becomes more and more stressful, we need more things around us that are comforting and relaxing,” she added.

Although Harper & Rafell has been trading for only two months, some of the feedback the store gets ranges between packaging to branding. Rafell added how these comments are encouraging—given the fact that she wants every aspect of her brand to form part of the escapism dark academia fosters. Her favourite response to date is from a customer in her home state who ordered three photo packs and messaged back saying that she was going to put them all up on her wall. “I love knowing that my products are being used in a way that will bring joy and beauty into someone’s life,” the seller shared.

Now that we’ve broken down some of the reasons backing the subculture’s present demand, it is also essential to check up on the criticisms it has received and its alleged way forward. Back in January, one of the major criticisms pulling dark academia from the spotlight included it being a “wealthy subculture not everyone can afford.” In this regard, dark academia was scrutinised for promoting capitalism and classist attitudes.

“For me, the issue with dark academia at first glance isn’t that it is expensive, but is definitely exclusive,” Rafell explained when asked about her take on these claims. The seller highlighted how the subculture—although rooted in the classist and colonial culture of the British Empire—is also really popular with conservatives who praise CS Lewis and Tolkien for their personal religious views. “So, I think when someone looks at the aesthetic from the outside, they get the impression that it’s not for them—it’s for straight white boys who spend their summers on daddy’s yacht and people who can afford marble statues and fine art in big gold frames.” One of Rafell’s priorities, hence, is to ensure that her products are both affordable and appealing to a broader target audience.

The seller also credited the internet for levelling the playing field, making it much harder to gatekeep or keep anything exclusive offline. “This is one of the reasons why I love social media—it’s making it more affordable and accessible to own beautiful artwork by connecting directly with artists and small businesses,” Rafell added. “We’re starting to take back the means of production, and that gives me a lot of hope.”

Now onto the pressing question. Dark academia has undoubtedly survived the internet’s test of time till date. But what about its future? How long does Rafell herself think the subculture has before it’s yeeted off? Does dark academia have the potential to survive as one of those classic subcultures in this regard? “I definitely think so,” Rafell said, stressing how the aesthetic has been around before it was even labelled. “I feel like I was peak dark academia when I was 15 and obsessed with old paper, quill pens, and typewriter fonts. I’m now 28 and it’s only the last few years that I’ve come across the term ‘dark academia’ and realised I was part of it.”

The Etsy seller outlined how downfalls usually dawn on a subculture when it enters mainstream media and big corporations pick up on it. “It becomes so over-saturated that everyone loses interest,” she said. Rafell quoted the Marvel universe as an example here. According to her, Marvel seems to have a subculture now, “but only after the hype of the big shiny superhero films died down and made room for more niche (and inclusive) content like the Loki series.”

Given dark academia’s strong link to marginalised communities and the fact that it hasn’t been adopted by the straight, neurotypical majority, Rafell feels it might just stay as a subculture. “I’ve seen a few people within the community saying they don’t want it to become mainstream and it should be kept for ‘true fans’ of the aesthetic. But I think art is for everyone and if it does become more popular, that just makes it more accessible. And when the hype goes away, all the dark academics will still be there.”

What is dark academia? An Etsy seller explains the brooding subculture

The collective way forward

Five years down the lane, Rafell plans to branch out both in terms of the concept and variety of her product ranges. Inspired by Greek goddesses, Harper & Rafaell’s first range is named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and is “pure dark academia.” “I’d love to branch out with a range inspired by Artemis, which will be more cottagecore with lots of green tones, or a Hera set with peacock colours and gold foil washi tape,” Rafell added. The Etsy seller also shared her plans for future ranges inspired by niche fandoms like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events or Anne of Green Gables.

“I’m also working on tech accessories like iPad cases and mouse pads that align with the dark academia aesthetic,” Rafell exclaimed. This idea stemmed from yet another gap in the market that she discovered while browsing for her personal use. “I’d also love to get planners and notebooks printed to add to the range,” she added.

So, if your journaling instincts are awakened after reading this article, here are some tips from the dedicated seller herself: “Don’t let perfectionism ruin things for you. I think a lot of us who use journaling as an art form can be terrified by a blank page and collect things to use but never use them for fear we’ll do it wrong.” So go ahead and scribble on that first page, sample some washi tape, swatch your favourite paints or pens, anything to get something on there. Rafell also suggests trying out a lot of different aesthetics instead of being boxed into just one. And if you are just starting out, she suggests copying the layout of your favourite journaling accounts “so you can get an idea of how to build up the page and balance a lot of elements.”

So, sit back and make sure to enjoy the process. In the end, “You can always tear out the page and start again.”

What is dark academia? An Etsy seller explains the brooding subculture

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