Covid-Era Aesthetic Has Ivy Roots

Editor’s Note: Please click here for the accompanying photo essay.

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.  

Carpe diem.

James H. Grant

22 Comments on "Covid-Era Aesthetic Has Ivy Roots"

  1. Another round of absinthe (leave the bottle) and a packet of Gauloise(s), please.


  2. Good work getting the readers of Ivy Style up to snuff on Dark Academia, James! A few points I might add:
    1. While it has roots, like you mentioned, in the writings of Waugh/Forester and ideals of the Victorians, it’s starting point and definitive text is undoubtedly Tartt’s “The Secret History” — this is not a point of contention but a fact. (The novel is an excellent read, btw.)
    2. It is important to note that, while folks have tried to bastardize it into a “lifestyle”, at its heart it is simply an “aesthetic” and nothing more (if you don’t know what that means, likely you’re over the age of 25!).
    3. This trend was covered for Ivy Style during the heart of the pandemic by Ivy aficionado, Zoë G. Burnett, under the tutelage of Christian Chensvold:

  3. @charlottesville
    I just read the Wiki on Donna Tartt and learned she has lived in Charlottesville part-time over the years (unclear if that’s still the case). Perhaps there will be a distinguished, Ivy-clad attorney in her next book.

    • Charlottesville | February 21, 2023 at 12:18 pm |

      Thanks for thinking of me, whiskeydent. As far as I know, I haven’t bumped into Ms. Tartt, but it could happen. I periodically cross paths with John Grisham and Sissy Spacek, but have yet to spot Dave Matthews or Rob Lowe in the wild, and I fear that the tweedy Mr. Faulkner was gone by the time I arrived. However, I will keep my eyes peeled.

  4. The term “dark academia” is very apropos to modern academia.

    College campuses can be dark, depressing, and contentious with little space for original thought.

    I read about a Yale psychology professor who taught a course called “Happiness”. The New York Times wrote that she had to take a leave of absence because of depression.

  5. Dark Academia is aspirational. I think those who like to cosplay as students in a prestige BBC period piece are searching for a time and place they imagine was simpler and more stylish. I think many readers of I-S might share that feeling in one way or another (hopefully with the obvious caveats about how inequitably civil rights were shared during such times, not to mention today).
    As I write this comment, though, it’s dawning on me that we are presently living in a style free-for-all, where there is no prevailing sartorial aesthetic among people who care about such things. It’s all over the map. So perhaps Dark Academia isn’t cosplay at all, but just how someone may dress, whether or not they’ve ever read (or even just watched) Brideshead Revisited. I kinda like that.

  6. I join Mr. Grant in sharing my interest in what he describes this new aesthetic of Dark Academia. As a 74-year-old IS reader and occasional poster, his description of the architecture, rich book-filled interiors, and a heavy lean to a prep school atmosphere appeals. Without attempting to promote anything from Mr. Lauren’s empire, the fantastic descriptive effort of Mr. Grant reads like the early lush Polo ads. BTW, I miss Zoe.

  7. A soundtrack to accompany any DA enthusiast’s stormy night read along with a healthy dram of scotch.

    Esa- pekka Salonen
    Daniel Bjarnason
    Oliver Knussen
    Bernd Zimmerman
    John Adams
    Pierre Boulez
    Arnold Schoenberg
    Jasper String Quartet
    Ted Hearne

  8. With the pause in content I find myself often looking back at old posts similar to this one. Well done to its author. Akin to the clothing featured on this site, I miss what once was.

  9. My best to you and yours for a full recovery.

  10. Thank you for the column James. Regarding classical and philosophical studies, I think the focus on these preceded the Victorian period – going back to the 18th century where American colleges emphasized Roamn/Greek classical studies. Caveat – at some schools, classical studies were accompanied by an emphasis on more contemporary ideas from the enlightenment. (think Princeton)

  11. Substitute Roman for Roamn. Someday, I will learn to write this stuff in Word. Then cut and past. (paste)

  12. Charlottesville | February 21, 2023 at 12:31 pm |

    Thank you for your fine essay, Mr. Grant. I find the tweedy Englishness of the pictures quite appealing, although the brooding, melancholy aspect less so. That being said, I can see the attraction for a bookish youngster. I just wish it had more of a real-world effect on the local collegiate dress, which seems to run mainly to athletic wear.

    JB – My wife and I continue to keep you and your wife and daughter in our prayers.

    • James H Grant | February 21, 2023 at 10:17 pm |

      Charlottesville: Thanks for your comments. I guess they don’t call it ‘dark’ for nothing. Looks like the Cavaliers play Tennessee this fall. It has been a long time. Regards.

  13. So this Dark Academia is Harry Poter meets Bridehead Revisited meets All Creatures Great and Small meets basically the 1970s Ralph Lauren? I approve.

  14. Very interesting that all of these elements are now grouped into a genre! I will look up Ms. Tartt’s novel and I’ve seen Dead Poets Society. What other novels/movies fit best into this besides those mentioned (I just read Brideshead while on our summer holiday last year and have been working through Harry Potter books/movies with my daughter).

    • These don’t perfectly correlate with the aesthetic, but they get very close to it:
      I’m ever a fan of PG Wodehouse novels and the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry-led TV adaptation.
      There’s a movie I quite liked about 20 years ago, Pretty Young Things, based on E. Waugh’s novel, Vile Bodies. It’s a between-the-wars period piece directed by Stephen Fry, as it turns out.
      All this Stephem Fry involvement reminds me of his biopic of Oscar Wilde, called Wilde.
      So basically, if Stephen Fry is involved and it’s a period piece, it probably has significant Dark Academia correlation.

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