DO NOT be concerned if you are not up to speed on the aesthetic phenomenon known as Dark Academia. It is an esoteric subculture which gained traction during the peaks and valleys of the Covid-19 pandemic. During those austere times, the DA aesthetic was of particular interest to a subset of younger people who explored the crevices of the internet and participated actively on social media.
Although the precise origins of Dark Academia are murky, some of its aficionados point to the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, starring the late Robin Williams, and The Secret History, a first novel published in 1992 by Donna Tartt. Earlier influences include works by E.M. Forster, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and more recently, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But it was not until Covid-19 was in full bloom that DA blossomed as well.
Coincidentally, Spotify has an interesting playlist dedicated to Dark Academia, featuring Bela Bartok, Erik Satie, Franz Liszt, Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Schubert, and others.
Dark Academia harkens back to Victorian times, when being well versed in the classics, gothic prose, romantic poetry, the ancient languages Greek and Latin, and the arts eclipsed more practical avenues of intellectual achievement, such as engineering, science, mathematics, and commerce.
The DA subculture idealizes intellectualism and academia – not necessarily for the marks, but for personal fulfillment. It conjures up vignettes of a student poring over a book in a coffee shop, burning the midnight oil in college digs, or a group of young men in heated debate.
Although the aesthetic draws heavily on Victorian themes, there was a second-coming – a sort of renaissance – during the period ‘between the wars’ in the 1930’s. Although these intervals were not called Dark Academia, they were undoubtedly the foundation for the latter-day movement which burst on the scene during the pandemic.
In my cursory research, I have failed to identify a significant Dark Academia footprint on college campuses today. The movement appears to be more virtual than actual, more aspirational than concrete. So, if you only have a vague notion of the Dark Academia aesthetic, or have no knowledge of it whatsoever, do not be concerned. I suspect you are in the vast majority of the habitues of the Ivy Style forum.
Nevertheless, Dark Academia is an interesting, albeit quirky style trend which relates to all things Ivy. Key elements of the aesthetic are its architecture and interiors. Buildings are mostly Georgian or Victorian, neo-gothic, ecclesiastical, or institutional – like one would expect to see at an elite prep school, a prestigious northeastern college or university, or at Oxford and Cambridge. The conjured imagery of the aesthetic is almost always autumnal and overcast – never bright and sunny.
The nostalgic interiors resemble libraries, museums, and cozy nooks in English country houses or college dormitories. They tend to be darkish, somber, decidedly traditional, and cluttered. Many rooms are wood paneled and have generously proportioned architectural moldings. Leaded glass windows are covered with heavy tapestry or velvet draperies. Floors are adorned with Persian rugs. Upholstered sofas and chairs are mostly leather. Tables, chests, and bookcases are mahogany, walnut, or oak, with a multitude of books on the shelves, and more books and papers strewn about in haphazard fashion. Artwork consists of engravings, portraits, and landscapes. Accessories have that collected look – acquired over many years, even generations.
The apparel ascribed to Dark Academia is relaxed, casual, sometimes disheveled. Men’s clothing features bulky cardigans, turtlenecks, or pull-over sweaters, rumpled dress shirts, navy blazers, and tweedy jackets, some with vests, and ties invariably askew. Shoes can be oxfords or loafers. Hues are mostly earthy or gray, with a smattering of navy or burgundy. Women’s jackets are tweedy, sometimes with waistcoats, skirts are long and frequently pleated and plaid. Blouses can be frilly or plain – rarely starched or ironed. Lace up shoes, boots and low heels are typical. Jewelry is minimal. Many photographic images of women who represent the DA aesthetic are melancholy, plaintive, and nostalgic – not unlike Pre-Raphaelite paintings of late 19th and early 20th centuries in Britain.
As usual, all that glitters is not gold. The Dark Academia phenomenon has its critics and detractors. Some say it is elitist and Waspy. They claim its practitioners glamorize an unhealthy lifestyle, i.e., sleep deprivation, overworking, smoking, and even substance abuse. Others lament its idealistic, romanticized aspects, as opposed to . . . well, real life. And, within the hallowed halls of Dark Academia, there is very little interaction between men and women, boys and girls. (Where’s the fun in that?) Perhaps this aspect can be traced to the exclusivity of male and female boarding schools and colleges of bygone eras.
You might ask: Why is a seventy-eight-year-old retired gentleman concerning himself with such obscurata as the Dark Academia aesthetic? Frankly, your guess is as good as mine.
James H. Grant