An inquiry into the tik tok subculture, "dark academia"

with the semester coming to a close, so does the flow of assignments, projects, essays, and readings. there are some of you who are effervescent, nearly bursting at the heels to begin winter break. the other half of you are sad.

you feel empty, idle, and aimless. perhaps, this is compounded by the nature of the pandemic. these sensations, rooted in fear, engender a mass-desire for escapism. it’s not a bad thing in fact, i’m including myself in this group

after a semester away from school, a decision outside of my control, i did find myself fantasizing about an idyllic semester on campus. i wished for the days in which i could scribble in my planner on the quad, sit in an art history seminar, and walk with friends into town for an oat milk latte. 

across the internet, there are others who have admitted to feeling this way too. “dark academia,” as it’s referenced, is a subculture focused on reading and learning. yet, its roots are firmly planted in the past, rather than the present. 

while a contemporary aesthetic, dark academia takes inspiration from 19th & 20th century american and british university culture. the community is mostly women who take sartorial signals from men, expressing a strong penchant for tweed jackets, wool trousers, and tortoiseshell rimmed glasses.

nestled in a cozy room in new england or in england itself, these creators film videos in gothic-inspired bedrooms, creating a dual-sense of history and intimacy.

on aesthetics wiki, a repository of aesthetics found on social platforms, the “dark academia” page is the most popular on the site.

operating as a de-facto field guide, the site recommends reading material such as crime and punishment and the divine comedy, films like dead poets society and black swan, the work of artists like vincent van gogh and artemisia gentilleschi, and even activities like badminton, backgammon, and running —“to prepare for chasing after your lover,” the site reads.

like many internet trends, this aesthetic originates from the early days of tumblr. to date there is a dark academia tips tumblr page, where aesthetic-enthusiasts submit questions to an amorphous arbiter.

people ask questions such as: “what would be the dark academic equivalent of sweatpants?” or “how do you think i'll fit into the aesthetic when i live in a 3rd world tropical country?

the answers to these questions are: “as for loungewear, i find that silk pajamas look indeed very good,” and “definitely, favor all-natural fabrics and avoid blends at all costs.”

the rise of dark academia-esque cultural references are contributing towards an increased interest in the aesthetic. films like little women take the viewer back to 19th century massachusetts, and its themes of family, home, comfort, and safety are ones to envy and admire during the pandemic. netflix’s limited series the queen’s gambit, focuses on the life of a chess prodigy, inspiring a 125% increase in chess set sales since the show’s premiere on the platform. the crown’s most recent season premiered in november, which has renewed popular interest in princess diana and her “sloane ranger” style. lastly, in the fashion world, the hottest trends this season have focused on menswear, with sweater vests, oversized blazers, loafers, and pleated skirts taking prominence in fall ‘20 collections. 

ultimately though, the dark academia subculture remains invested in an idealization of university life, a phenomenon so violently disrupted due to the pandemic. the secret history, a novel about six classics students at a small liberal arts college in vermont, serves as the manifesto.

the book performs as a guide — pulling on the aesthetics of nostalgia and heritage to instruct readers on living a classical, traditional, and intellectual life. 

i had not heard of the secret history until i had arrived at college. despite living an existence quite close to the characters involved (a student at a liberal arts college in rural new england), it’s story and its influences were quite foreign to me. it was recommended while interning at my college art museum during my sophomore year, a “dark academic” storyline in and of itself.

cultural critic kyle chayka writes about the enticing quality of tiktok, the platform which has most propelled the popularity of this subculture in 2020. he writes, “what i found is that you don’t just try tiktok; you immerse yourself in it. you sink into its depths like a 19th-century diver in a diving bell. more than any other social network since myspace it feels like a new experience, the emergence of a different kind of technology and a different mode of consuming media.”

on this side of tiktok, i find myself wondering about the authenticity of what i’m seeing.

A post shared by D'Arc academia (@dark.academia)

there is nothing tangibly dark about the aesthetic, other than the dark wool pants to which each participant seems beholden.

in its permutations, dark academia celebrates curiosity, liberty, voracity, and work ethic. it ignores the realities of late nights, stressful professors, rigorous seminars, work obligations, and long days. those later aspects, the ones that cast a significant shadow over real college experiences, are notably missing from the narratives of these creators. despite there being “darkness” in the name, it is primarily a positive spin on something that is not always so bright. 

i want to watch the videos of a creator who can capture the darkness of a long and lonely day of classwork. or the melancholy that one feels after multiple freezing winter days in a row. or the struggle of nourishing yourself while you have work shifts to complete and an endless pile of assignments to address.

“the whole dark academia thing comes from such a place of privilege. most people don’t have the energy to curate an aesthetic around the scholastic life,” my friend Julia (& fellow college senior) said. “it’s evident that they are in the position to prioritize their academics over everything else whereas most people have to take into consideration families and jobs.”

the “dark academia” aesthetic attempts to shed light on an independently decreed pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge & learning.

yet, the darkness that the aesthetic aims to present, does not capture the true darkness that comes with forging one's own path. it’s an excuse for young people to express their “nerdiness,” their predilections for nostalgia, and their desire to spend time alone, in a manner that is more pseudo-academic than anything else.

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