- Between the start of the pandemic and the spring of 2021, Google has reported no less than a 4750% surge in search hits for the phrase, which, as its ever-growing legion of digital adepts are quick to clarify, is not just a fashion trend, but a lifestyle.
- While at first glance echoing little beyond a darker-hued, and perhaps more distinctively anglophile iteration of contemporary Ivy League-style prep, Dark Academia rises, in all its dusty, decaying, and problematic glory, as a far more accurate signifier of contemporary anxieties than the former.
- A romanticized search for pre-digital stability seems to have also played a part in the trend’s dramatic popularity spike.
“What are intellectuals? What does intellectual life look like? How do you know if you’re an intellectual?” In an online lecture given in February of this year and titled “Dark Academia, Gender and Intellectualism”, City University of London’s Dr. Sarah Burton seemed to ask the burning questions underpinning the recent, rabid algorithmic spike of the Dark Academia micro-trend across TikTok, Instagram and other online spaces predominantly inhabited by Gen Z folk. Between the start of the pandemic and the spring of 2021, Google has reported no less than a 4750% surge in search hits for the phrase, which, as its ever-growing legion of digital adepts are quick to clarify, is not just a fashion trend, but a lifestyle.
Runways, fast fashion campaigns, and culture at large have been brimming with a (shabbier, and sluttier) renouveau of ‘preppy’ attire—as attested by, among others, the unexpectedly successful revival of the defunct Gossip Girl, a yardstick of badly aged TV classics. Schoolgirl chic and semi-ironic riffs on the bourgeois aesthetic are certainly not a novel concoction. While at first glance echoing little beyond a darker-hued, and perhaps more distinctively anglophile iteration of contemporary Ivy League-style prep, Dark Academia rises, in all its dusty, decaying, and problematic glory, as a far more accurate signifier of contemporary anxieties than the former.
Fueled by a proto-prep energy, the subculture takes its cues from the narrow historically circumscribed moodboard of Brideshead Revisited Oxbridge humanities departments, specifically drawing on an old-school English heritage highlighted by a minimalistic color palette of autumnal, burgundy, black and brown tones along with inevitably accompanying tartans, checks and tweeds. The lifestyle’s key commandments run as follows: a preference for Victorian Gothic architecture over any modernist flex is a must; hobbies such as the study of Latin and Ancient Greek are preferable, a voracious appetite for (Western) classic literature is indispensable. Exemplifying its own brand of neo-aestheticism with a nerdy spin, Dark Academia centers around the idea of inconsequential knowledge acquisition, or learning for learning’s sake—indulging in a deification of symbolic capital, far from the mundane realities of contemporary academic life, and the socio-economic demands straining the cultural workers of today. The post-Enlightenment glorification of truth-based knowledge and its symptomatic cultural hangover permeating the Western psyche translates here into a trend that sees the performativity of intellectual labor as superior to its monetizable form. Veiled in a trompe l’oeil quest for intellectual rigor, the aesthetic experience is superlative.
The meteoric rise of Dark Academia across social media and online communities seems to have directly corresponded with the pandemic, funnily enough, using digital tools to advocate for their very demise—instead, hailing a resurrection of handwriting, sketching, leather-binding, and the quiet yet obsolete charm of pre-internet life. A romanticized search for pre-digital stability seems to have also played a part in the trend’s dramatic popularity spike: in a time of a semi-total loss of agency and endemic biopolitical authoritarianism, the outwardly solid yet illusory façade of institutional learning, conservative decor, ambiance, and architecture provide a palpable comfort akin to the solace budding alt-right Reddit threads once provided for young white men with trembling senses of masculinity. Nostalgic daydreaming of a fading past often proves an effective coping mechanism, an escapist oasis for those wounded by a world in full-blown epistemic crisis.
The Dark Academia subculture is riddled with paradox, none greater than its seeming rebellion against the market-geared education economy lauding the merits of a career solely devoted to profit-making. If it is true that humanities departments, particularly in the UK, have been subjected to widespread job market devaluing, severe underfunding, and a seemingly unstoppable rise in tuition fees, Dark Academia does little to combat the Anglo-Saxon higher education system’s hardwired elitism. Instead, it reinforces the reigning paradigm not just on economic terms, but also in aesthetics, making it clear that only certain bodies are welcome in its quaint and chalky microcosm—all others being seen as alien, or ‘glitchy’.
As a lifestyle and online subculture, Dark Academia seems to arduously try to counterbalance the messy, schizoid, and uncertain material reality of the post-COVID epoch. As a fashion trend, its outright archaism rings perversely refreshing in an era where the virulently elitist industry seems ever-keener in reifying the rural, the poor, or the normcore. It seems, at least metaphorically, more self-reflective and accepting of its regressive DNA, hardwired traditionalism, resistance to change. Here, in its failure to harbor the promise of critique, fashion may rebel against its own performative pseudo-cogitations.