Foiling fiat lux: Dark academia and the mirage of digital aesthetics

Photo of Dark Academia
Merchant Ivory Productions/Courtesy

Related Posts

There’s something alluring in the musky perfume of old books, the warm glow of reading by candlelight, the giddiness of running through an art museum after-hours. It’s the same wistfulness that wanders down cobblestone streets, that flutters through the crisp October breeze, that opens a new black notebook and feels the spine break. Entwining these feelings and experiences — what runs through them like Ariadne’s golden string — is the aesthetic commonly known as “dark academia.”

Dark academia is a digital aesthetic category, akin to other viral aesthetics such as “cottagecore” and the “VSCO Girl.” The term “aesthetic” comes from philosophy, but in the online world, this word refers to the amalgamation of niche visual cues — plucked from movies, literature, television and specific episodes of reality — that are curated to project an ideal world. 

In 1946, British writer Robert Graves noted “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession,” and the rise of dark academia takes his observation as an imperative. Digital aesthetics beget lifestyle, beyond mere fashion trends: They carry knapsacks of interests, habits, values, postures, soundtracks, settings and more.

While unplugged audiences may see it as a peculiar phenomenon, the goal of “having an aesthetic” is to project life in a way that is consistent and compelling. In the Vogue article “Do I Have an Aesthetic?”, linguist Gretchen McCollough notes how the aesthetics metaphor straddles the languages of marketing and art. Within this framework, the emergence of aesthetics seems to prove and perpetuate a deeply human desire to understand oneself — and to have that self be understood by others — through tidy, uncomplicated stories. These abridged portraits of personhood thrive in an online ecosystem, pruned of the nuances and contradictions intrinsic to offline humanity. In an aesthetic, everything belongs.

 The dark academia aesthetic reimagines higher education in the humanities, prizing the relentless pursuit of knowledge above all else. Study of the humanities flares at both the hearth and the gates of this aesthetic. Dark academia is shaped by the media that depicts it as well as by the stories central in those depictions: the classical myths in Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” transcendentalist poetry in “Dead Poets Society,” Shakespearean drama in M. L. Rio’s “If We Were Villains.” The aesthetic kneels before the altar of the Muses, succumbing to the passionate, almost hedonistic alchemy evoked by rich poetry and prose.

This deeply literary world holds a deeply bewitching sense of mystery — what is awakened by being surrounded by stories that primes people to perform, embrace a role and transform into a character themselves? A study from Northwestern University lends credence to the idea of “enclothed cognition,” which claims that certain clothing influences the wearer’s psychological processes. On the internet, enclothed cognition is algorithmically entombed.

Plastered across TikTok, Instagram and Tumblr, the dark academia “look” plucks simplistic, fitted silhouettes from the ‘30s and ‘40s to resemble fashion worn at private preparatory schools. The aesthetic’s de facto uniform favors a neutral, muted color palette, and it’s associated with corduroy slacks, plaid sweaters, pleated skirts, leather Oxfords, crisp white button-ups and tweed — lots of tweed. It’s not yet the winter of our discontent nor the Ides of March: These styles suit autumn and the beginning of the school year. While it’s similar to classic preppy fashion, dark academia prefers Ralph Lauren to Kate Spade.

In this aesthetic, something wicked this way comes. Dark academia brings a traditional yet gothic twist to scholarly settings, sensing a sinister presence lurking in old, decaying classrooms and lavish Baroque libraries. It veers more toward Mary Shelley than Jane Austen, Yorick’s skull instead of Portia’s ring.

The eponymous image of “academia” comes from the early 20th century renovations of U.S. collegiate campuses. Popular architectural styles were Greek Revival, Gothic and Georgian — undisguisedly wealthy and aesthetically intimidating.

Prior to becoming president of the United States, then-president of Princeton University Woodrow Wilson said, “By the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style, we seem to have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton.” As Wilson implies, the cultural importance of collegiate campuses was reflected in their physical stature. These settings were designed to be ivory towers, to silo high-achieving academics from the rest of the town.

In dark academia, this isolation makes the scholarly landscape more enticing. Worldbuilding in “Kill Your Darlings,” “Ninth House” and even the “Harry Potter” series relish in-group insularity as a conduit to embark on secret adventures, strengthen close bonds and of course, deepen one’s intellect.

Yet, the darkness that haunts dark academia spills outside of its preferred reading and into its ethos. The aesthetic romanticizes the ugliest parts of real-life academia: elitism, exclusion, ruthless competition and privilege. At the same time, dark academia casts a self-aware mirage, purporting to know and wink at its fatal flaws. The moral thorns pricking this aesthetic are much easier to pare down when pining after indulgent, irreverent fruits. Tragic ends are inevitable, but style makes it irresistible.

Routine becomes romantic when filtered through lifestyle content’s aspirational prism. Regular activities underpinning dark academia — writing an essay, reading a book, walking to a café, nursing a glass of wine — become so aestheticized that they are zapped of mundanity. But then again, that’s sort of the point: Reality and realism retreat to make space for spectacle, style and desire.

The New York Times chronicled the aesthetic’s virality in June 2020 and wrote, “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 noted such content is “created largely by users 14 to 25 years old.”

This age range implies that most creators are not yet familiar with the reality of higher education. As such, fiction becomes the curious mind’s entry portal while escapism becomes integral to the appeal. It’s much easier to rebuff a half-witted comment about the humanities’ futility when you’ve dressed the part — embodying an aesthetic that categorically refutes it.

Dark academia romanticizes but more importantly remembers a time when society’s ruling class appeared to venerate liberal arts education. It coats the blurry memory of a bygone era in amber, impervious to estrangement and postponing the illusion’s inevitable graduation.

Maya Thompson is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].