Illustration by Loveday Pride
Dark academia has swept the world by storm in the last couple years, especially with the rise of social media content sites such as TikTok. I, much like everyone else, gladly let the current of this aesthetic take me downstream until my whole Pinterest feed was filled with photographs of blurred cathedral interiors, students wearing neutral, earthy tones, books and study notes decorated with coffee cup stains, and trench coats galore! So as autumn begins and the days get darker, now seems like the perfect excuse… no sorry, time… to indulge in my own dark academia mania.
First, a definition. Everyone’s favourite reputable source Wikipedia defines dark academia as: ‘a social media aesthetic and subculture centred around higher education, writing/poetry, the arts, and classic Greek and Gothic architecture. The subculture is associated with ancient art and classic literature… draws on idealised aesthetics of higher education and academia, often with books and libraries featuring prominently… and has been described as maximalist.’
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is considered a quintessential example of dark academia literature, if not its figurehead. It follows the story of morally grey university students studying Classics at a remote, elite university in New England. As far as the key tropes of dark academia go, most of them have already been checked off. Moreover, in describing the characters, Tartt evokes the appearance and fashion that many have since taken as a look-book for dark academia: dark colours, tweed, blazers, horn-rimmed glasses, imposing coats. Most of the characters come from wealthy backgrounds, thereby facilitating their spendthrift lifestyle, including impromptu trips to Europe, spending hundreds of dollars for a single meal in a restaurant, and having second or third family houses at their disposal. And, of course, given their degree, they are also effortlessly cultured. But the primary focus of the book is about how one of their classmates is murdered, and retrospectively explains it by retelling the events that led up to it.
I personally really enjoyed The Secret History, although its 629 pages are not to be underestimated. As a person who once strongly considered studying classics at university, it was a lovely way for me to read about Latin and Greek students and their (questionable) antics. For me, it was the darker, more Gothic, more mature version of Percy Jackson in that it desperately filled a classics-related void within me, where the characters I was reading about were around my age. But surely it is more than merely the aestheticism and character description that has made this book the cult classic it is today, almost 20 years since its first publication. Even Tartt’s talented craftsmanship of an intricate and engaging storyline would not have been enough to secure the legacy and popularity it has today.
The intrinsic Gothic-ness of dark academic literature is something that has greatly contributed to its appeal, making it seem the natural successor to the Gothic fiction of the 19th century, think Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. Just as with Gothic fiction, I believe the popularity of dark academia to be in no small part influenced by the dark imagery. The moral darkness in Gothic literature is enhanced by the frenzy of the weather described in it – tempestuous storms, raging winds on the moors. In The Secret History, the aggressiveness of the New England winter, with its deadly cold and seemingly eternal snow plays into this, mirroring the harshness of this group of students, capable of premeditated murder. Adverse weather, in its turn, informs the clothes associated with this aesthetic: the dark colours, large coats and imposing-looking boots that became all the rage are both functional as well as fashionable. If dark academia finds its home during the months of autumn and winter, its counterpart of light academia is therefore linked with spring and summer. However, light academia lacks the teenage/young-person angst that dark academia can manifest.
Using the pandemic as an explanation can illuminate this further. With the closure of schools and the transition to online learning, the romanticisation of school life and study with real people neatly coincides with the romanticisation of university study. To combat the lethargy and inevitable procrastination that studying from home might engender, students turn to academically ideal characters, who are smart, productive, dedicated, and interesting. Moreover, the recluse and socially deprived life we were forced to lead with every lockdown mirrored the reclusiveness of the academic-obsessed, exclusive students whose penchant for barbarity and even murder we find in Tartt’s novel.
There are elements of the dark academia aesthetic that I disagree with. Namely, if you’re rich and cultured and you have a sink overflowing with unwashed, coffee-stained mugs, that does not make you aesthetic, that makes you dirty. Hygiene is not subject to an aesthetic – do your dishes like everybody else. But reading about a group of friends gallivanting on adventures at night-time made me feel nostalgic for past late-night shenanigans with friends around my college and Oxford: running around the quads at night, sitting together and talking on a bench even though it was freezing outside, racing each other back to college from Hassan’s after a night out. So, while the dark academia aesthetic is indubitably stylish, and pretty, and satisfying to look at and take part in, the fact that its origins are so deeply rooted in student life, exploration, and mistakes is something that will always make me look back on it and its literature with fondness. As it gets darker, let your inner dark academic take the reins and see where the night will lead you.