Reading 18th century French literature, practicing script, oil painting... the latest internet trend is the perfect cozy quarantine mood.
A teen on TikTok opens her journal, revealing pages filled with messy handwritten notes in Latin, accompanied by cutout images of Greek and Roman philosophers. The shot changes and she’s knitting a scarf, before revealing the intimate details of her bedroom -- decorated with scraps of lace, a framed illustration of flowers and loads of Penguin classics. To an untrained eye, the video seems quaint and mundane, but tell that to the millions of viewers of ‘dark academia’ videos on TikTok.
The moody aesthetic is Kill Your Darlings meets Oxford student in the 30s/40s and is for anyone who wants to dress like a prep school kid and study like the boys in Dead Poets Society. “Ayo, dark academia check,” begin a variety of the TikTok videos, with Sufjan Stevens playing in the background as teens film themselves making coffee, writing in cursive on parchment paper or showing off their outfits and makeup.
The aesthetic is listening to Chopin on vinyl, while curled up with a book -- likely by the Beats or Baudelaire -- in dim candlelight, whilst sipping a cup of tea. It’s bringing a sketchbook to the museum and musing over ancient statues, drawing the furrowed brow and soft lips. It’s wearing turtlenecks with overpriced Barbour jackets and houndstooth trousers, complete with shiny Oxfords, to give the illusion of a brooding scholar who has an acceptance letter to Brown. Essentially, it’s living like a moody YA character who drinks whiskey while writing essays just because his favorite author did the same.
It might seem like the people who are part of this aesthetic like to quote Macbeth mid-sentence just to sound pretentious -- but dark academia is actually a celebration and romanticization of literature and a deep thirst for learning.
Given the name academia, you might think you have to be in school to be part of the aesthetic, but that’s not necessary either. For recent college grad Rachel, being part of dark academia has her yearning for her school days. “It allows me to revisit some of the more enjoyable aspects from a more romantic vantage,” she says. Although she’s always enjoyed reading, dark academia has inspired her to make a “bookstagram” and learn French, alongside participating in the arts, oil painting and botany.
“Dark academia is not just one straight aesthetic, it helps people explore their individuality and expand their knowledge,” explains 24-year-old Frederica from Italy, whose Instagram embodies the aesthetic by sharing photos of gothic architecture, books and journal entries daily. On the app, dark academia is shared via flat lays of books and cups of tea, sepia-toned outfits consisting of tweed blazers and wire-frame glasses, and European art, all typically accompanied by quotes from Tolstoy or Jane Austen in a gothic font.
Social media has helped the niche aesthetic grow from tumblr fan art and mood boards, inspired by Donna Tartt’s cult bestseller The Secret History, which embodies the entire aesthetic, into an actual lifestyle. Gen Z have reclaimed dark academia and have built a growing community on TikTok, alongside other budding aesthetics like cottagecore, grandmacore, goblincore and light academia.
Trying to understand dark academia just by looking at the hashtag on TikTok can be confusing, as the aesthetic often gets mistaken for others like witchtok, since people use multiple tags for exposure. This exposure is why the dark academia community is slowly moving over to the popular app, since it’s easier to go viral there than on other platforms. For 18-year-old Niya, who posts videos of her studying and making coffee, this means helping the aesthetic community grow and spread its message. “I want people to appreciate those relaxing videos more and understand how the [dark academia] community feels,” she says.
The aesthetic might seem extreme at first, but at its core, it’s nostalgic and a form of escapism during these uncertain times -- not to mention, it’s full of wholesome and stimulating quarantine hobbies. “Historical fashion and decoration, classical music and literature is something a lot of people enjoy about the dark academia aesthetic and may be part of what draws them to it,” says 20-year-old Venke, whose Instagram feed is a gothic European fantasy. “[It’s] a longing and an interest for things from the past, whether fictional or fashion-wise.”
When it comes to fashion, dark academia is all about muted, earthy colors and layers; it’s similar to how you might dress on a crisp autumn day. For 20-year-old Lucia, who runs a dark academia Twitter, fashion is what drew her to the aesthetic. Although the ideal dark academia look is essentially any of Ralph Lauren’s autumn/winter collections, the overall vibe is librarian chic and influenced by gothic and vintage looks. “Dark academia is all about long coats, tweed, and turtlenecks, which are great choices for a winter look,” Lucia says, “but you can totally make it work year round, adding some details here and there, like some cool Oxford shoes, a plaid skirt or a nice blazer.”
Mood boards act as guides for people to follow and imitate fashion and other elements of dark academia, but there is no right way to embody the aesthetic. “I don't think changing who you are, becoming someone you're not or doing things you don't actually enjoy for the sake of the aesthetic is what dark academia is about,” Frederica tells me. “I see it more as a way to empower oneself to explore and expand one's knowledge. To embrace who you are and your passions.”
Despite the original intentions of the aesthetic -- to inspire people to read highbrow literature and share their love of learning and history -- it has been criticized for being Euro-elitist and exclusive. Laura, who runs popular dark academia-inspired TikTok and Instagram pages, says those who don’t fit into this box often feel excluded.
“People are like ‘I have short hair, it's not dark academic’ and these type of statements are the [sic] most sad to me,” Laura explains, informing me that she gets DMs on her accounts from people asking if they fit the aesthetic if they’re not wealthy or white. “I see so many young people trying so hard to fit in and as you know, the harder you try, the more obstacles you see and then doubt if you are good enough for this to begin with.” These obstacles include superficial ideas related to appearance like hair length, body type, and fundamental forms of exclusion like race and wealth.
At first glance the aesthetic does seem like one that might attract a community of rich white people, those with old money or interested in high society, but the opposite is true, as 19-year-old TikTok user @etherealacademia points out. “Unlike some other aesthetics, dark academia fashion and decor is really affordable,” the college student says, noting its accessibility. They often buy their books, antiques and clothes at thrift stores for cheap prices. Just as long as people have a desire to read, curiosity to learn and an appreciation for art and history, they can participate in the aesthetic and its welcoming community.
As we all practice social distancing in these uncertain times, dark academia might be the best aesthetic to be a part of. With summer looking like it’s basically canceled (sorry) it might be time to embrace cozy autumn vibes by lighting some candles, learning Latin as a quarantine hobby, and embracing the dark academia aesthetic.