The “dark academic” is smart but sullen, effortlessly cool but largely withdrawn, with rings under their eyes (spending all night in dimly lit libraries) and bruised legs (getting up to no good in between courses — a dark academic typically has a dark secret).
And most often, the dark academic is a TikTok user, emulating a look they’ve only seen onscreen or in books, and living a version of a dream life in which they can spend their days reading the classics in a centuries-old library.
Imagine spending your days tucked inside the Wren Library at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Dark academics sure do. Credit: Image Professionals GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
“I think that building these ‘aesthetic’ communities virtually via social media has allowed for a lot of people to meet friends and explore their interests despite the isolation of the pandemic,” she told CNN in an email.
School’s been in and out since March 2020, so dressing — and living — like a “dark academic” is a way for followers to meld their uniform past, unstable present and aspirational future.
Dark academia combines smarts and style
Though versions of “dark academia” permeated Tumblr and Pinterest in the mid-2010s, the trend resurged in popularity when the pandemic began. Being forcibly separated from her school by Covid-19 made Glowacz crave the experience all the more — she wanted to romanticize an experience she’d lost.
She wasn’t alone — the hashtag gained traction on TikTok at the end of 2020 and continued to gain momentum and find fans. Soon, young people stuck at home were donning wooly sweaters over collared shirts and pulling up knee-high socks for looks that resembled uniforms they might have seen in “Dead Poets Society” or “Derry Girls.”
“It’s portrayed generally as a sort of secretive, individual, and intense thirst for knowledge which is what makes it moody and ‘dark’ academia,” Glowacz said.
In Glowacz’s videos, she shares her collection of antique leather-bound books, creates grainy videos of sealing envelopes with wax from a melted candle and outfit pairings for every season. While the fashion elements of the aesthetic are fun to play with, she said that she’s happier finding friends with similar interests, not just similar style.
Preppy uniforms, piles of books, a focus on the classics — many dark academia fans find these elements of “Dead Poets Society” aspirational. Credit: AA Film Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Alice Sidgwick, a lifelong reader who “loves studying, writing, vintage clothes and old buildings,” said she didn’t so much “join” the trend as she did discover an umbrella under which her pre-existing interests fell.
Dark academia can have a dark side
Some of the “dark academia” elements that its followers love are what make it potentially problematic to others.
Ellis said in the video she attended Durham University, a prestigious college whose town often appears in aspirational “dark academia” posts. But her experience there didn’t reflect those fantasies — there, and at other universities in the UK, classism made students feel unwelcome and a lack of financial support left them saddled with debt.
The historic city of Durham, England is often seen in dark academia videos as an example of the aesthetic. Credit: albinoni/Adobe Stock
“They wear the style of the elite and valorize the subjects of those institutions, but the long tradition of student protest and political engagement seems missing in a lot of cases,” she said in the video.
Dark academia isn’t inherently offensive, Ellis said, but to make it an inclusive community, its followers should reckon with the history of the institutions they valorize.
The trend keeps growing
“Selah and the Spades,” starring Lovie Simone (left) and Jharrel Jerome, places Black leads in the historically White boarding school setting. Credit: Ashley Bean/Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Dark academia’s appeal is wide and only growing (and it’s seasonally appropriate, too — nothing says “winter” like curling up with a book in bed or layering with a thick sweater). And even with school mostly back in session, Glowacz still takes comfort in the world of dark academia, where it’s perpetually drizzling and there’s always a piping-hot cup of tea waiting for her.