The curious rise of Dark Academia

The Dark Academia aesthetic is not a novel one. Despite the recent resurgence of interest surrounding it, it is a trend which has existed on social media for some time. Some digging around the origins of the concept reveals that it initially emerged from a particular branch of literature, the Dark Academia novel, perhaps best epitomised in Donna Tartt’s 1992 text, ‘The Secret History’. What was extracted from novels such as this was the romanticisation of the historic private school – brimming with secret societies, vintage-style coffee shops, and the kind of visuals that a quick Instagram search in the ‘Dark Academia’ tag would also reveal: warm candle-lit libraries, classical literature and sepia-toned cobblestone streets. 

But the phenomenon of aesthetic movements within the online social sphere has wider reach and connotations than they do on the written page. In its online iteration, Dark Academia takes on a curiously performative nature – although this is not at odds with the content typical to social media platforms. However, in such a context, the concept somewhat diverges from its origin, in that it morphs into an aesthetic with little to do with academia at all. It’s to do with how we imagine or wish to be perceived as we pose with plaid uniforms, vinyl records, beautifully lit historical buildings or classical literature collections.

The repercussions of such an aesthetic gaining traction, especially among younger social media users, is twofold. In one sense, as with any widely propounded aesthetic trend, there is the danger of promoting one dimensional representations of people’s much less filtered and perfected realities. And of course, there is the exclusionary grounding of ‘Dark Academia’ in the romanticisation of a classist and Eurocentric perspective and way of life. Despite the mainstream evolution of the trope, a Google search reveals a large percentage of images of preppy looking white men in tweed and blazers. But a definite upside to the recent influx of ‘Dark Academia’ content on platforms such as TikTok is that increasing numbers of BAME users are participating in the content creation – in this sense, the expansion of the trend onto mainstream platforms is great in the inclusion and diversification aesthetic trends need.


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Eleanor Burleigh

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January 2022
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