The Ultimate Guide to Dark Academia Subculture

Dark academia may be a term unfamiliar to baby boomers, Gen Xers, and some millennials, but it’s a trend worth noting.

The first mentions of the word started on the social networking site Tumblr back in 2015. What began as an internet aesthetic to appeal to the ‘older’ Harry Potter generation has become so much more. 

The dark academia phenomenon is being incorporated into many different aspects of daily life, from fashion to architecture and home decor, to name a few. 

Over time, and thanks to its continued popularity with Gen Z on other social media platforms such as Instagram, the interest in dark academia aesthetics has continued to flourish, growing into its very own subculture. 

In addition, the recent global pandemic, shutdown of schools, and explosion of TikTok have only helped encourage the fascination with this trend. 

But what does the trend involve, and how can dark academia vibes be incorporated into our lives?

What Is The Dark Academia Aesthetic?

The best way to explain dark academia aesthetics is to set the perfect scene: you could quietly play some classical music like Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in the background to encourage concentration. Light an amber, vanilla, or oud candle to scent the room delicately. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and allow yourself to be drawn in by the mysterious and seductive ambiance you’ve just laid out.  

Imagine it’s early evening during the fall, with a light fog. The sun has set and paved the way for the moon, and the sky is now a rich shade of violet. Black antiquated lamp posts have suddenly come to life to light the pathways in the garden. The leaves on the tall trees outside slowly turn from deep green to rich hues of burnt orange and deep yellow and begin falling to the ground. 

Picture yourself seated in a room dimly lit by candlelight, gazing out stained-glass windows in deep contemplation. You may be situated in some otherworldly campus-style academic environment with gothic architecture and surrounded by extensive art collections; perhaps there’s an ornate library within sight and long, arched hallways leading to other rooms. Think old-money British private schools and boarding schools for the elite, prep schools, or older Ivy League colleges in the US. 

Let your imagination run away with you. The scene you are picturing doesn’t need to be remotely realistic. If you’re struggling to envision the right surroundings, cast your mind to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter fantasy series, and you’ll get the picture. After all, part of the allure of dark academia is how it flirts with mystery, intrigue, and a little magic. 

With the scene set, the concept of dark academia aesthetic should become much more accessible in your mind. 

Dark academia fans and followers, or dark academics as they call themselves, are all about higher education and typically have a penchant for intellectualism. They share a passion for all things scholarly, infused with a touch of intrigue and mystery, and often live out this aesthetic in the digital world through the online communities they have created.

Along with being an internet aesthetic, dark academia has evolved into a subculture, which the Sociology Dictionary defines as a “group within a society whose behaviors, norms, and values differ in some distinct ways from the dominant culture.”

This article explores how dark academia can be reflected in a modern-day lifestyle. But we can’t help but ask – why dark academia suddenly became so popular?

Why Is Dark Academia So Popular?

The answer to this is quite simple. Remember, this trend has mostly captured the hearts and spirits of youths between the ages of 14 and 30. 

The recent pandemic saw many schools shut their doors and turn to online learning. At a time when friends could not have been more needed, loneliness peaked, and mental health problems soared, it’s only natural that comfort in the community was found digitally. 

Students had little choice but to inevitably use their vivid imaginations and technology-rich backgrounds to create an internet aesthetic that filled the void left by empty classrooms. 

For the older dark academics, the feelings of romanticism and nostalgia the trend invoked, and an appreciation for eras gone by garnered followers of dark academia outside of the classroom. 

Whether a teenage lover of the trend or a young adult, social media has only helped to compound the interest in dark academia and helped encourage its virality. We can thank platforms such as TikTok and Instagram for that. 

How To Live a Dark Academia Lifestyle

As with many other online themes, trends, and aesthetics, dark academia can be inserted in a few key areas. These are:

  1. Dark academia in fashion
  2. Dark academia hobbies and activities
  3. Dark academia books and films
  4. Dark academia decor and home design

Dark Academia in Fashion

Much could be written about how dark academia has infiltrated fashion in recent years, and plenty of online resources provide detailed guides on curating a dark academia capsule wardrobe

However, suppose you’re beginning your dark academia journey and starting to dip your toes into the world of dark academia fashion. In that case, there are a few essential items worth investing in. These are the starter pieces every dark academia wardrobe should have, yet they are classic enough to be worn even after you’ve had your fill of the trend.

Before diving into these key pieces, it’s best to define the look. Kristen Bateman at the New York Times aptly describes it as “traditional-academic-with-a-gothic-edge.” Think moody, subdued colors such as beiges, deep browns, rich bottle greens, and classic shades of black and white. Yet, it doesn’t mean there is no room for patterns, and in fact, houndstooth and tweed are encouraged.

With that knowledge, here are some of the basic staples to add to a woman’s dark academia capsule wardrobe:

  • A classic white shirt
  • The quintessential brown, worn leather satchel
  • Thick opaque tights in a shade of black, deep gray, or patterned
  • Knee-high knitted socks
  • Tweed blazers in neutral shades of black, brown, and cream or a classic houndstooth pattern
  • A smart pair of pants such as dress pants, culottes, or pegged pants; bonus points if they are made in a vintage tweed material
  • Oversized knit sweaters in a dark shade of brown or gray
  • Plaid skirts, but do ensure they are not micro or mini skirts!
  • Worn leather loafers, oxfords, or flat boots in a shade of brown or black

Dark Academia Hobbies and Activities

Lovers of the dark academia aesthetic will know certain hobbies and activities align more with the dark academia way of life. 

No, it does not mean sitting in a room lit by candlelight, listening to classical music, and contemplating life – although it could be – but more about the constant thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of all things intellectual. 

As a general rule, dark academia hobbies and extracurricular activities place a heavy emphasis on languages, reading, writing, and of course, learning. 

Here are some of the most common dark academia hobbies you might want to consider: 

  • Calligraphy: learn to enjoy the art of writing, but not in the traditional sense. Calligraphy is not about writing using a keyboard but crafting beautiful handwritten notes in decorative handwriting or lettering using a fountain pen or brush. 
  • Appreciating poetry: in whatever way it is most enjoyed, whether writing, reading, or reciting.
  • Learn languages: bonus points for romance languages such as Italian or French or ancient languages such as Ancient Greek or Latin.
  • Reading dark academia novels like the books listed below and classic literature must-reads like Wuthering Heights.
  • Appreciating ancient art and Collegiate Gothic architecture
  • Holding all-night study sessions: ahead of any upcoming exams or deadlines in college
  • Getting lost in museums and beautiful libraries

Dark Academia Books and Films

Dark Academia Book Recommendations

Whether you are a dark academia newbie or a seasoned dark academic, these books will pique your interest. With the imagery of shadowy moonlit libraries invoking literary dark musings and, as Book Riot put it, “an overwhelming sense of poetic sexiness,” the same Book Riot’s Zoe Robertson proposes a few must-reads:

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

One of the most famous works of the Irish playwright, The Picture of Dorian Gray was originally published in 1890 as a short story in a magazine and later published in its complete form as a novel, Wilde’s only one. 

In this book, Dorian Gray, a vain young man, declares his desire, while being ‘immortalized’ in a painting, for the portrait to grow old in his place and for him to remain youthful. Gray keeps the picture and spends the subsequent years living an increasingly debauched lifestyle, and as he indeed retains his youth, the man in the portrait becomes tired and worn. 

The artist explains the painting depicts the evil existence the real Gray has been living – he is faced with the choice to either succumb to the power of the portrait or destroy the painting to restore his humanity.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

One of the progenitors of the dark academic genre in 1992, The Secret History draws on the visuals of a fictitious Ivy-League-esque school in Vermont and a group of six students studying Ancient Greek. A tale of intrigue, friendship, and murder, the dark and moody tale is the quintessential dark academia read.

Ace of Spades, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Published in 2021, Ace of Spades is a recent yet extraordinarily well-received novel (rated 4.2/5 by Good Reads) that comments on socioeconomic and racial divides in the American private school system. 

Chiamaka and Devon – the only two Black students at their elite private school, become the subject of the attention of a cyberbully known as “Aces.” Chiamaka and Devon start to unravel an institutionalized system of oppression in the predominantly white old-world school.

If We Were Villains, ML Rio

Set at an elite performing arts school, If We Were Villains follows the tale of a group of seven Shakespearean actors. As the tragedy unfolds, the group is shaken to its core, and forces that challenge their previously unbreakable friendship are set into motion.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited, set at the titular palace, Brideshead Castle, follows Charles Ryder throughout the 1920s into the 1940s. Ryder becomes intrigued and eventually enthralled by the lives of the members of the aristocratic Flyte family until their excessive ways become too much.

Dark Academia Movies To Watch

If movies are more up your street than books, here are two classic dark academia movies that might interest readers. 

Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir

A dramatic movie released in 1989 featuring the tormented Robin Williams. The critically-acclaimed film is set in 1959 at Welton Academy in Vermont, a prestigious boarding school, and its new teacher John Keating (Williams). 

Keating gains notoriety with his students, not only as an educator with a ‘unique’ teaching style but as a former member of the school’s Dead Poets Society, which several young students restart. 

The students are encouraged to challenge conventional thought and live life by their own rules, which, as things unfold, makes Keating’s position at the school challenging to maintain. The film is known for its moving “Oh Captain, My Captain!” scene.

Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas

A dramatic biopic based on the college years of poet Allen Ginsberg, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. The young Ginsberg is introduced to a new world at the intersection of poetry, wealth, and extravagance. From the formation of the nascent ‘beat movement’ to a tragic murder, Ginsberg is taken on a journey of self-discovery, which leads to his becoming a poet. 

Dark Academia Decor and Interior Design

Another way to inject some dark academia into our lives is to incorporate classic dark academia elements into our homes’ interior design and decor. Just like there are staple elements of a dark academia wardrobe, the same can be said for dark academia home decor. 

The theme throughout should be moody, dark, and cluttered. Minimalism is not the order of the day. Think timeless elegance combined with a Victorian touch and sense of refinement. 

Some ideas include decorative wallpaper, dark walls (black walls are particularly striking), vintage trunks, chandeliers, and eclectic ornaments. In general, colors should be moody and rich or earthy autumnal hues. 

Here are some additional living room, dining room, and office decor tips you can implement:

  • Hallways: Include classic artwork, ideally in antique gold ornate frames, dark or sepia photos, and thick curtains pulled back with elaborate rope. The more daring may consider Greek statues lined up against the walls. 
  • Office and library: Dark mahogany shelves full of leather-bound books, memoirs, or literary classics like Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte or Short Stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Perhaps a typewriter, a skull or two placed near candlesticks, and antique lampshades for added effect. Bonus points for a rolling ladder on the bookcase.
  • Dining room: Try a dark wooden dining table decorated with antique candlestick holders and chairs upholstered with velvet cushions. 
  • Living room ideas: A mandatory fireplace with ornate vases on the mantelpiece, an upholstered armchair with a high back and matching sofa, plenty of rugs, and decorative cushions. Stained-glass windows, gold-gilded mirrors, and maybe even a marble bust or two to complete the look. 

Criticism of Dark Academia

With a better understanding of the dark academia aesthetic and the knowledge of what it means to be a ‘dark academic,’ it’s worth raising the question: is the dark academia lifestyle for everyone?

As with most things in life, when something garners a lot of popularity over a relatively short period, it will attract both fans and critics. While the consensus admires the dark academia aesthetic, some do not agree with some of the basic principles that uphold it. Here are the most common criticisms: 

  1. Lack of diversity: Dark academia has been criticized by some for its lack of diversity, drawing much of its inspiration from white society, with little representation of women, the working class, plus-sized individuals, mothers, or members of the LGBTQ+ community.
  2. Elitist: Some have argued the dark academia culture promotes elitism and encourages aspirations of an ‘old money aesthetic,’ which not everyone can achieve. 
  3. Promoting a hierarchical culture in society: Following the first two points, some argue dark academia promotes a hierarchical society – where the ‘old money’ white males occupy the upper echelons of society.
  4. It romanticizes European and Ivy League upper-class education: Dark academia has been called out for celebrating European upper-class education and Ivy League schools in the US when not everyone can enroll at such institutions, almost encouraging an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.
  5. Emphasis on the aesthetic rather than proper study: While the concept of dark academia places a lot of emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, some followers might be more into the appearance of studying the arts or classics, or rather, the art of the aesthetic, instead of adequately learning the subject matter for the right reasons. It’s important that even though the aesthetic is trending, these ‘dark academia favored’ subjects should be studied for a genuine love of the topics rather than because they are trending, as this could lead to subpar research.
  6. Promoting unhealthy behaviors: From late-night study sessions and sleep deprivation to excess alcohol and substance abuse, dark academia has been known to glamorize activities amongst the young that should not be encouraged. Anyone who has watched the British Netflix show ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ will know the Libertines are a great example of this.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dark Academia

What Is The Concept of Dark Academia?

Like other lifestyle aesthetics such as cottagecore, fairycore, and most recently, Barbiecore, dark academia is an internet aesthetic and subculture made popular by the Gen-Z generation. Dark academics tend to romanticize intellectualism, antiquity, and the classics, with common hobbies including reading great literature, studying the arts or Gothic architecture, and learning romantic Latin languages. 

Is Harry Potter Dark Academia?

Whether the story of Harry Potter can be considered ‘dark academia’ or not is a matter often debated. 

According to a popular discussion website, one fan of dark academia argues, ‘an entire generation growing up wishing they’d gone to Hogwarts is probably the single biggest reason the dark academia style exists today.’ 

On the other hand, others have slightly different ideas, with one user stating, ‘It’s definitely academia because Rowling was taking off of the genre of British boarding school children’s novels. That’s half of dark academia, that and the college novel… but is it dark though?’

Some dismiss the idea altogether, with one user stating, ‘No, not really. But it is a sort of cross between dark academia and “witchy” aesthetic.’

Many threads debate this topic, showing the popularity of the aesthetic and the number of different opinions on whether Harry Potter can be considered dark academia. 

What Is Light Academia vs. Dark Academia?

Similar to dark academia is the lesser-known light academia. The underlying aesthetic is the same. However, whereas dark academia is synonymous with intrigue, secrets, and the odd illicit activity, light academia is more about romanticizing the classics. Think of it less as good vs. evil, but rather enlightening etherealism vs. moody sinisterness.  

What Are The Elements of a Dark Academia Story?

Dark academia is, first and foremost, an aesthetic that celebrates the pursuit of knowledge, referencing the arts, literary classics, and Gothic elements. Stories aiming for dark academia vibes should be based in a school setting, with one online user commenting, ‘a book that does not have a school as its setting cannot be referred to as dark academia.’

When it comes to the story itself, the plot would typically be sinister and include mystery, dark secrets, elite universities, secret societies, and perhaps even a touch of romanticism.

This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks

Sarah Borg Barthet
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