What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia?


School, as most of us know it, came to a halt this spring. There were no graduation gatherings and no proms. No study abroad or in-person summer classes.

And what will happen in September is still largely unknown.

Yet in the digital world, a different kind of academic community is thriving, one where students have created a niche of their own, along with an aesthetic that mirrors the world they once knew.

Known as Dark Academia, it is a subculture with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing, learning — and a look best described as traditional-academic-with-a-gothic-edge; think slubby brown cardigans, vintage tweed pants, a worn leather satchel full of a stack of books, dark photos, brooding poetry and skulls lined up next to candles.

Created largely by users 14 to 25 years old, posts tagged with the Dark Academia moniker have racked up over 18 million views on TikTok; there are over 100,000 posts on Instagram. And though Dark Academia predates the pandemic, for many of its denizens it has taken on new importance during a time when school is canceled IRL.

Sydney Decker, for example, an 18-year-old theater student in the United States who runs the popular MyFairestTreasure, a Dark Academia-themed Instagram account, began posting about Dark Academia outfits in January 2020, after discovering the community at the end of her fall semester in college. She has since amassed over 18,000 followers and focuses on mood boards inspired by literary references, such as retro looks that mimic Hogwarts houses and wardrobe ideas for Neil Perry from “Dead Poets Society.”

“I am completely obsessed over the fashion associated with the aesthetic: the tweed blazers, plaid pants, black turtlenecks and sophisticated accessories,” Ms. Decker said. “Part of me truly aspires to collect all of these pieces and wear them whenever possible.”

In the halls of Dark Academia, nostalgia and a world free of modern technology reign. Many of the community members focus on what life might have been like in the 19th and early 20th century at private schools in England, boarding schools, prep schools or Ivy League colleges in New England.

A typical post may involve teens showing off their argyle sweaters to classical tunes, followed by a series of photos of leather-bound books, handwritten notes, a page from “Wuthering Heights” and a shot of classic Greek architecture.

It’s not unusual to see fans dressing up as their favorite book characters or posting vintage photos of novelist Donna Tartt, author of “The Secret History,” Dark Academia’s essential text. The 1992 murder mystery told in reverse deftly connects its characters and plot to the English suits, French cuffs, plaid shirts and tweed jackets that define them.

According to Natalie Black, director of Strategy + Insights at Hierarchy, and the founder of Culture x Curate, it is “The Secret History” that serves as a guide to transforming “the entire aesthetic into an actual lifestyle. The trend is an interesting remix from a broad range of eras, from the 18th century to the 1940s.”

Though it’s unclear how and where, exactly, Dark Academia began, many users discovered it on Tumblr. Ana Alsan, for example, a 21-year-old English literature and linguistics student in Brazil who runs the Dark. Academia Instagram account, said she initially encountered the subculture on Tumblr in 2014.

“It was not the ‘Dark Academia’ that we know today,” Ms. Alsan said. Instead, Dark Academia on Tumblr focused on dark photos and written posts about what books to read. “But it had a lot of gothic and classic aspects.”

Lilly Borges, 15, who posts videos of her argyle sweaters, classic architecture and Virginia Woolf novels under the Dark Academia tag also found Dark Academia on Tumblr when it was a much smaller community. “The community is very special to me because as a child I was very shy and reserved. I kept to myself, and was very interested in academics at a young age,” she said. “My favorite book in 7th grade was ‘Crime and Punishment.’”

Though it can sound niche, part of Dark Academia’s appeal is the fact that it is both more approachable aesthetically than other popular internet subcultures — one example being Cottagecore, the internet aesthetic inspired by a romanticized interpretation of rural life — and also emphasizes inclusivity and gender fluidity.

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To be part of Dark Academia, you don’t have to have access to a country house, a field of flowers, a big kitchen for baking or an expensive prairie dress. Most of the clothing Dark Academia fans wear is vintage and can easily be found in secondhand stores or sites.

Laura Piszczatowska, a history student in Norway, runs the Dark Academia Instagram account Geminnorum (over 28,000 followers), where she posts photos of old Spanish buildings by night, the flicker of a candle and typewriters. On TikTok, she makes videos set to piano music from the Vitamin String Quartet showing stacks of books, cups of tea, antique postcards and letters written in ink. “My typical outfit is tweed pants, black turtleneck or a white shirt, elegant shoes and long coats,” she said. “My favorite coat is one I thrifted for a low price.”

Similarly, Evelyn Meyer, a 20-year-old who created the “Dark Academia check” sound in September 2019, often favors clothing from the men’s section of Goodwill in her videos, as well as the pages of books tacked up on her wall, a typewriter she owns, and paperback novels by beatniks and transcendentalists.

“The androgynous vintage blazer is definitely representative for the aesthetic,” said Dilara Schloz, a fashion historian and researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, who considers herself an adherent of the Dark Academia subculture. “It can be worn by boys, girls and anyone who does not fit into any of these definitions. Anyone can be feminine and anyone can be masculine. The silhouette of a classic Dark Academia outfit often reminds us of a 1930s or 1940s men’s look.”

Indeed, Dark Academia also has a dedicated LGBTQ+ following, in part thanks to the fact many of the books and films that Dark Academia prizes such as “Kill your Darlings,” about the poet Allen Ginsberg, and “If We Were Villains,” by M.L. Rio, with LGBTQ+ characters.

“It’s a very open community, even though it’s about classics,” said Lucien K, 21, who posts Dark Academia TikToks of himself reading books and doing makeup to the tune of Vivaldi. “It’s also about breaking stereotypes regardless of gender or sexuality.”

As study halls, workshopping essays and round table discussions go virtual, and many students are left wondering when they’ll be able to dress up and go to classes again, Dark Academia is filling the void.

“I think a good part of Dark Academia is aesthetics, but it’s also a community,” said Declan Lyman, 15, who posts Dark Academia videos on TikTok. “The more you get into the whole vibe, the more you feel connected to other people in the tags. The main point is a desire to learn.”

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