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A guide to ‘dark academia,’ the TikTok-popular aesthetic with preppy style and an intellectual focus

A guide to 'dark academia,' the TikTok-popular aesthetic with preppy style and an intellectual focus
Written by Publishing Team

written by Scotty Andrew, CNN

The ‘Dark Academician’ is clever, but sullen, and effortlessly cool, but largely withdrawn, with rings under their eyes (they spend the whole night in dimly lit libraries) and bruises on the legs (doesn’t do them well in-between courses – an academic usually has The dark experience a dark secret).

They have an eye for Gothic architecture and can poetic wax about Keats and Wolf and other titans of the Western canon. They sip tea by candlelight, stay up late writing at their old desk and thrive when the weather is gloomy.

The often dark academic is a TikTok user, mimicking a look they’ve only seen on screen or in books, and living a version of a dream life where they can spend their days reading classics in a centuries-old library.

The Dark Academy, for all its tweed jackets, loafers and plaid skirts for schoolgirls, isn’t just a materialistic aesthetic for some, but a way of life. Her sacred texts include Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Oscar Wilde’s classic “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Many of her lieutenants had dreams of attending storied schools across the pond and studying history, art, or classical literature — subjects that some college students might not be encouraged to pursue.
Imagine spending your days inside the Wren Library at Trinity College in Cambridge, England.  Dark academics certainly do.

Imagine spending your days inside the Wren Library at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Dark academics certainly do. credit: Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Images

This is what prompted Talya Glowacz, who posts on TikTok as CosyAcademia, for the aesthetic — “Romanticizing Learning.” Before the pandemic, she was attending a master’s degree program at the University of Exeter in England with plans to become a university professor. When Covid-19 brought her back to the United States, she was eager to return to her historic campus. Finding the dark academia was the next best thing.

“I believe that virtually building these ‘aesthetic’ communities through social media has allowed many people to meet friends and explore their interests despite the isolation of the pandemic,” she told CNN in an email.

In and out of school since March 2020, dressing – and living – like “dark academic” is a way for followers to integrate their military past, precarious present, and ambitious future.

The Dark Academy combines intelligence and elegance

Although “academia dark” versions permeated Tumblr and Pinterest in the mid-2010s, the trend was back in popularity when the pandemic began. Being forcibly expelled from her school due to Covid-19 made Glowacz yearn for the experience even more – she wanted to romanticize an experience she had 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, the young people stuck at home wore cardigans over collared shirts and knee-high stockings for looks resembling the uniforms they might have seen in the Society of Dead Poets or the Dairy Girls.

Fashion is one of the darkest draws of academia – jackets are there! – but it swelled into something much broader. On TikTok, users share violin performances of Arctic Monkeys anthems, cosplay scenes where schoolchildren escape an unknown evil and close-ups of tea being poured, rain hitting the bedroom window and the flicker of fading flames.

It is generally portrayed as a kind of secretive, individualistic, and intense thirst for knowledge, which is what makes it a volatile and ‘dark’ academic, Glowacks said.

In Glowacz’s videos, she shares her collection of vintage leather-bound books, and creates adorable videos of waxing envelopes from melted candle and clothing pairs for every season. While the fashion elements in the aesthetic are fun to play with, she said she’s more than happy to find friends with similar interests, not just a similar style.

Ready-made uniforms, stacks of books, an emphasis on classics - many fans of dark academics find these items "dead poets community" Ambition.

Ready-made uniforms, stacks of books, an emphasis on classics—many fans of dark academics find these elements of the “Dead Poets Society” aspirational. credit: AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Alice Sedgwick, a lifelong reader who “loves to study, write, old clothes, and old buildings,” said she didn’t “join” the trend so much as discovering an umbrella under which her pre-existing interests fell.

“Dark Academia is really just an acronym for all the things I love,” Sedgwick, DarkAcademiaCandles on TikTok, told CNN in an email. “It’s nice to see people posting things that celebrate how hard they study, draw, or write, and others can join in. I think that’s a very positive thing coming out of TikTok.”
When the epidemic began, Sidgwick began selling candles inspired by characters from classic literature — vetiver and mahogany scents by Mr. Darcy and amber and vanilla by Jay Gatsby — complete with a handwritten, wax-sealed love letter from the character. When she discovered the dark academic hashtag on TikTok, she learned that she had found her client base. Now, her work is named after the aesthetic she loves.

The Dark Academy can have a dark side

It is some of the “dark academic” elements that her followers like that make her problematic for others.

Rowan Ellis, a UK YouTuber who has created videos about LGBTQ history, said in a 2021 video that elitism and the focus on white authors and artists baked into dark academia can be restrictive and harmful.

In the video, Ellis said she attended Durham University, a prestigious college whose hometown often appears in ambitious posts in “dark academia.” But her experience there did not reflect those fantasies – there, and at other universities in the UK, class made students feel unwelcome and a lack of financial support left them burdened with debt.

The historic city of Durham, England, is often seen in dark academic videos as an example of the aesthetic.

The historic city of Durham, England, is often seen in dark academic videos as an example of the aesthetic. credit: Albinoni / Adobe Stock

Amal Abdi writes for Refinery29 that the Western cannon of “classic literature” consists largely of white authors writing about white heroes. Because prestigious institutions have long excluded black students and people of color, when their history undoubtedly passes or is even celebrated, dark academics may perpetuate the same exclusion, Ellis said.

“They wear elite style and appreciate the themes of those institutions, but the long tradition of student protest and political engagement seems to be missing in many cases,” she said in the video.

Ellis said that dark academia is not inherently offensive, but that to make it an inclusive society, its adherents must reckon with the history of the institutions they value.

The trend continues to grow

The new innovators are dismantling the predominantly white reputation in dark academia. Books like “Ace of Spades” by Faridah bíké-yímídé, about two private school students whose futures are threatened by a dangerous bully, and films like “Selah and the Spades,” about a famous group at a prestigious boarding school with dark secrets, the Black Heroes Center in familiar stories. Dark academics of all backgrounds add them to their recommended reading and viewing lists. (Although the book and movie share similar titles, they are set in different establishments with unrelated characters.)
"Selah and spades," Starring Luffy Simon (left) and Jarrell Jerome, they put black bullets on the site of the historic White Boarding School.

“Selah and the Spades,” starring Luffy Simon (left) and Jarrell Jerome, puts lions in the position of the historically white boarding school. credit: Ashley Bean / Courtesy of Amazon Studios

TikTok users like CosyFaerie create content for what she calls “the black girl, the dark academic side of TikTok,” as she wears ruffled T-shirts for tea, reads a yellow version of “Pride and Prejudice” and tours museums.
“I was obsessed with dark academia…but I could hardly see any representation,” she wrote in one of the videos. So I decided to do it myself [smiley emoji] And add a little spice.”

The allure of the Dark Academy is broad and growing (and seasonally appropriate, too—nothing says “winter” like curling up with a book in bed or wearing a thick sweater). And even back to school mostly, Glowacz still feels comfortable in the dark academies world, where it rains constantly and there is always a cup of hot tea waiting for her.

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