This round of Bookstr Trivia takes a look at dark academia, its recent boom in popularity, and where it’s said to originate.
Today, dark academia is considered an aesthetic usually seen on social media focused on romanticizing higher education, classic art and literature, and Greek and Gothic architecture. But it didn’t start off as a subculture of society. In fact, the most common belief is that dark academia was first established as a genre in novels and had a slightly broader scope of what it entailed.
Early Dark Academia
The credit for this trend often goes to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for being the inspiration of the genre. The 1992 novel tells the story of a murder that takes place within a group of classics students at an elite New England college. This set the tone for dark academia in future novels and media. Stories like Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events really took the adventures in academia style to high levels. They influenced the aesthetic movement that took off in the 2010s and continues to this day.
The idea of dark academia first appeared on Tumblr in 2015 but was yet to become a lifestyle as we know it now. It began as a sort of book club thanks to Tartt’s novel where users recommended, read, and discussed gothic and dark literature. Eventually, the spread to other social media platforms like Instagram turned the intellectual dark academia into something more – a visual style of expressing oneself.
Before this, of course, there was always an appreciation for liberal arts. Dating centuries back, we have poetry from ancient Greece and literature from the 1500s we still study and find meaning in today. But dark academia sets itself apart in that it romanticizes a specific sector of upper-class society that emphasizes liberal education. It’s typically associated with the wealthy elite who attend prestigious universities to study classics – Western art, poetry, fashion, and architecture, specifically.
And the “dark” in dark academia comes from those in this subculture who are drawn to the unusual and the forbidden. More specifically, things like dangerous situations, puzzles, murder, cults, and secret clubs are what make this part of academia unique. Though this is more of a romantic notion these days, it’s likely the intellectual elite in the past engaged in such things making the aesthetic even more alluring now.
The Modern Take
As dark academia shifted toward depicting a lifestyle rather than a solely intellectual pursuit, social media became flooded with mood boards and visually pleasing images. Photos of piles of old books in libraries, New England or European buildings, Greek and Gothic architecture, and even certain styles of clothing covered social feeds. It’s important to emphasize the aesthetic is always analog. Something about vintage typewriters and pen and paper remains ideal for dark academia. Users take inspiration from films like Dead Poets Society and Kill Your Darlings to post their own outfits composed of layers of tweed jackets and blazers, turtle necks and long coats, corduroy, and dress shoes. The styles are clearly modeled after the male European elite.
Because dark academia has that dangerous, almost rebellious, feel to it, some add romantic photos of cigarettes, knives, or drinks to create that careless wild vibe that still feels sharp and put together.
Alongside the visual lifestyle component of dark academia, the genre tends to idealize a sullen and depressive way of thinking as well as a nostalgia for a life that a select few can and will ever experience. This especially skyrocketed in 2020 as the world entered a lockdown with the onset of the pandemic. It seems that students especially held tight to the idea of dark academia due to the longing for a schooling experience they missed out on. It provided a dreamy fantasy for students whose future plans for higher education were suddenly uncertain.
The aesthetic also became a cathartic outlet for the loneliness and depression that came from being isolated for so long. Quotes from poets known for their heartbreaking writing make their way across the dark academia community because they convey people’s deepest fears and feelings in a way that still sounds beautiful.
Beyond Fantasy and Into the Real World
Another product of the pandemic was the resurgence of dark academia on TikTok especially. Users began romanticizing art and knowledge in the form of cinematic videos. CosyAcademia is one user whose clips have gone viral by focusing on the combination of dark academia and cottagecore – another extremely popular lifestyle trend focused on getting away from urban life. Writing in leatherbound journals with fountain pens or quills, lighting candles, making tea, and putting together old-timey outfits and accessories pulls people in. Add in some soft piano or violin and drizzling rain sounds, and they’ve got the perfect recipe.
There are even guides for how to dress and live in dark academia. Charts and tutorials provide examples of the proper color schemes (generally dark or muted colors), textures, and accessories that are acceptable to achieve the style.
And now that leaving home is safer, dark academia seeps out from social media into real life. Think of the films mentioned earlier; fans would love to be able to visit their locations. And in some cases, they can. Often, it’s universities that are featured in movies: Oxford, Harvard, Princeton. Other times it’s famous cathedrals or castles like in Harry Potter. Durham Cathedral, for instance, fully embraced its association with the franchise. Durham University was the first in the United Kingdom to offer a course on Harry Potter and held Harry Potter movie nights where attendees were encouraged to dress like their favorite characters.
To make the experience even more real, music can almost be classified as an entirely new genre under dark academia. On TikTok, violinists began making classical renditions of popular songs that suit the aesthetic perfectly. For example, user “joelsvnny” covered Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush with his violin turning the song into an even more fitting soundtrack for those who need intense music over their dramatic dark academic video.
@joelsvnny this buildup will save u from vecna 🕰 #runningupthathill #strangerthings #indianviolin #fyp #tiktokviolin #darkacademia #xyzcba ♬ running up that hill violin by joel sunny – Joel Sunny
And for those who may not have the same musical ability, Spotify playlists aplenty fill the gap. It’s almost too easy to find one for any situation: “dark academia like you are a student at cambridge” and “ur a literature student studying at the oxford library” are a couple of the most popular dark academia playlists on Spotify. Each contains music ranging from classical to modern pop and has over 3,000 and 1,000 likes, respectively demonstrating the popularity of the genre.
Dark academia has permeated culture so deeply that it’s possible to listen to the perfect soundtrack while walking through these places in real-time. It’s closer now to a genuine way of life than it ever was in the past.
Because its origin is in the European wealthy elite, dark academia receives criticism for being elitist and Eurocentric. Romanticizing historically white aesthetics and Western literary ideas in addition to clothing, settings, and materials that most people don’t have access to excludes anyone outside those parameters. When people search for dark academia, it’s rare to see any people of color on mood boards or as the subject of the “ideal” academic experience.
On top of that, dark academia goes under fire for promoting unhealthy lifestyles: staying up all night to read or study, excessively drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and drinking endless amounts of coffee in order to stay awake. All for the purpose of fitting a certain “look.” Not to mention, the glorification of mental illness is probably the most popular trend in dark academia. Along with beautiful photos of old buildings and dazzling outfits come quotes expressing deep suffering and depression as if that is a necessary aspect of fitting into the dark academia picture.
These issues, however, don’t stop people of color and non-European cultures from expressing their own appreciation. They insert their own culture’s aesthetics in breathtaking ways.
Even in the literary world, authors take it upon themselves to decenter the European point of view. Books like Faridah Àbíké Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades and Alexa Donne’s The Ivies disrupt Eurocentrism while keeping true to the elite academic setting. As more of this kind of content arises, dark academia becomes a great way for those who are passionate about it to express themselves in a way that is true to who they are and doesn’t force them to change.
Among social media stars, Asiyah, or CosyFaeries on TikTok and Instagram, makes posts for what she has called “Black girl dark academia.” With 461.4 thousand followers on TikTok and 47 thousand on Instagram, her posts are clearly an inspiration for people who might feel discouraged by Eurocentrism not only in dark academia but in all academia.
What the Future Holds
Dark academia will likely be around for as long as higher education and the classics are romanticized. And there’s hardly been a lack of that. As people persist in their nostalgia and passion for academics, the genre and the lifestyle remain present in society. But who knows, perhaps variations of what’s considered aesthetically pleasing within the culture will change as technology and education evolve.
For more of Bookstr’s Trivia, keep reading here!