The humanities are dead and we have killed it.
That is, until the rise of a new internet aesthetic that fully embraced the beauty, darkness, and romance of the humanities sometime in the late 2010s.
Unlike the more contemporary trends it grew alongside, Dark Academia being a sort of pioneer of the ‘-core’ group of aesthetics, was an antique blast to the past. While the athleisure trend pushed the boundaries between casual and formal wear, elevating what was previously just gym clothes into something you could strut, Dark Academia seemed to reinforce that line. Sporting dark shades (pun intended), the style is characterized by a liberal use of blazers, vests, and shiny brogues.
It went beyond the mere emulation of appearance that the mid-2010s 50s resurgence had and adopted the 19th-century boarding school lifestyle. Okay, maybe not exactly.
Dark Academia was, and still is, based on an idealized version of the life of students at elite boarding schools and universities from the Victorian era until the 1940s.
Dark Academia: An Ode to a Bygone Age
The Dark Academia aesthetic is one of, if not the first, of the ‘-core’ aesthetic family that developed as subcultures on platforms like TikTok, Tumblr, and Instagram. Its approach to style, whether it be fashion, interior design, or graphic design, differed greatly from the typical fashion trends of the 2010s.
While many popular styles were only looks-based, Dark Academia is characterized by a love of learning, especially the kind of learning that is increasingly economically impractical: learning about the humanities.
This isn’t to say that other clothing styles did not have any deeper meaning to them. Boho, boho chic, and shabby chic were all associated with mindful New Age practices, environmental conservation efforts, and zero waste living before Japanese minimalism rose to popularity in the late 2010s and early 2020s. But unlike those aforementioned styles, Dark Academia can’t be Dark Academia unless you live and breathe the actual lifestyle and mindset of the aesthetic.
Since it was one of the earliest ‘-core’ aesthetics, hence the lack of a ‘-core’ name despite its obvious membership in that category, Dark Academia was able to define the aesthetics that followed in its footsteps as life philosophies made visual.
‘Aesthetics’ for the internet aesthetics weren’t just about looking the part but believing in the values embodied in that aesthetic. When Cottagecore started trending, it held a love for nature and the simple pleasures of life at its core.
Following in its footsteps, its sister aesthetic Angelcore emulated the Rococo imagery of 17th century France to evoke innocence and sweetness, the two attitudes towards life that Angelcore called for.
We see this again in Goblincore, an offshoot of Cottagecore that broke away from the traditionally beautiful and feminine look of its mother style which was becoming increasingly curated and, for lack of a better term, fake.
But just because Dark Academia came first doesn’t mean that it had no precedents. The Slytherin aesthetic that came before it was essentially Dark Academia before Dark Academia was even a thing. If you’ve somehow managed to escape the cultural behemoth that is J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, here’s a quick refresher.
Slytherin was one of the houses into which students at Hogwarts, the illustrious magical school of the Wizarding World, were sorted into. Fans who identified with the Slytherin house developed an aesthetic based on what they imagined life as a Slytherin student would be like. The result of this was the Slytherin aesthetic, a style that shared many of the same visuals that Dark Academia is now known for.
Both aesthetics made use of a dark color palette with Slytherin going for black and green while Dark Academia mainly used shades of brown. Most notably, both aesthetics cared for the pomp of class. Students of Slytherin house were explicitly elitists in Harry Potter. Just think of Draco Malfoy and his not-so-subtle racist remarks against Hermione Granger.
For better or worse, this translated to an aesthetic that had many of the same class markers that the English gentry of the 19th century had such as signet rings which carried the seals of noble houses. In this case, it was the Slytherin house logo, but you get the point.
Dark Academia followed this aesthetic template as an ode to a bygone age. A sense of longing pervades the Dark Academia aesthetic. It yearns for a romanticized version of the past when students studied the arts and philosophy religiously, learning Greek and Latin poetry to help shape their understanding of the world into something more soulful.
It’s this dreaming, despairing, and yearning that gives Dark Academia its appeal. It’s certainly a beautiful aesthetic, but part of its siren song to the artistically inclined is that, in a distant past, studying the humanities were seen as valuable and dignified – not just something that you did because you were ‘too stupid’ for a more rigorous and systemic discipline, the assumption here being that the humanities have never been rigorous.
Dark Academia’s lament for the past isn’t all just blind idealism. Before widespread industrialization and the internet age, the study of the humanities did have an honored place in universities as it was valued for enriching the inner lives and worldview of its students.
But if it was so exalted, then why the sudden change of fate in the 21st century?
Notes on the Death (and Revival) of Culture
To say that ‘STEM bad, humanities good’ is as simplistic and ignorant as making the reverse argument. When people disparage the study of the humanities, their first and main point is the fact that the humanities are not economically lucrative. Other remarks, often said with a more resentful rather than neutral tone, come after that fact.
It’s true. The highest degrees with the highest pay-offs and best return on investment vs. tuition are almost always in the sciences, particularly engineering. Payscale’s 2021 College Salary Report lists the following as its top five highest paying degrees:
- Petroleum engineering : $93,200 – $187,300
- Operations Research & Industrial Engineering: $84,800 – $170,400
- Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (EECS): $108,500 – $159,300
- Interaction Design: $68,300 – $155,800
- Public Accounting: $59,800 – $147,700
You get the idea.
Where are the humanities on this list? Nowhere near the top, that’s for sure. Art teachers sit at a lowly 782 on the list. Some of you likely rolled your eyes at that, thinking, “Of course it’s low paid! It doesn’t address any real need!” Sure, arts teachers aren’t out there saving lives but let’s scroll a bit further down.
Special education is listed at 787, despite the shortage of professionals in the field and the obvious need that students with special educational needs have for them. On the other hand, even though there’s a rise in mental health problems among adolescents and young adults, mental health professionals that provide life-saving counseling services are ranked at 816.
Given this information, it becomes increasingly apparent that the issue of why the humanities are increasingly subject to derision has nothing to do with them being “useful” to society and everything to do with the fact that they don’t fatten corporate pockets as well as degrees in STEM do.
But that’s simple economics for you.
What is culturally rooted, however, is the rise of anti-intellectualism as a response. As humanities degrees become less economically viable and student loan debts rise, the study of liberal arts that Dark Academia so dearly values returns to its elitist roots.
Taking on debt for a liberal arts degree is now a financial death sentence. While it doesn’t hold a ton of money-making potential, it now requires that students have the financial capability to take on the risk. In short, the kind of privilege that only comes with being born at least upper-middle class.
It’s not new. Academia has always been elitist, especially the humanities which have previously been part of what refined, “intelligent” people study to be accepted into polite society. Blue-blooded elites, and aspirants to that class, valued the humanities for similar reasons that STEM degrees are valued now. Except instead of money, what’s on the line is the social capital you get from being accepted as one of the upper class.
Put simply, the prestige of the humanities lent itself to good optics. It’s this intellectual = upper class optics that Dark Academia unwittingly replicates in its fashion choices.
The Optics of the Dark Academia Aesthetic
Putting aside pretentious over-analysis, the Dark Academia aesthetic is still a fashion style. Like all ‘-core’ aesthetics, the Dark Academia aesthetic has its own signature look that’s made up of wardrobe staples, a standard palette, and a manner of styling that fits the “vibe” of what the aesthetic is going for: elite university student realness.
Thankfully, the upper class ties of Dark Academia only extend to its role in a larger cultural context and not to how much clothes cost. While Dark Academia is particular about what books you read and what you do in your free time, the brands you buy from are entirely up to you.
But pro tip: if you have the money, Burberry and Ralph Lauren carry a lot of clothes in the Dark Academia style.
Leather Shoes and Bags
A look is built from the ground up and what part of a look is on the ground? That’s right: shoes.
Dark Academia isn’t one for flashy or colorful footwear. Leather shoes are standard across the board, leaving people who want to dress in the style with limited, but exquisitely bespoke, choices.
Shoes that are used for Dark Academia outfits include Dr. Martens’ boots, chic Brogues, Oxfords, Mary Janes, and low, kitten heel pumps. Of course, it has to be leather or synthetic leather, not an obviously plastic-y material.
Though heels can be worn with the Dark Academia style, it’s a specific kind of heeled pump that was popular from the 20s to the 50s. Google ‘vintage pumps’ and you’ll see the kinds of heeled shoes that fit the aesthetic. Glittery, mile-high stiletto heels are not welcome in the style.
As for bags, leather briefcases, purses, and messenger bags are preferred.
The rule of thumb is that if you can’t wear it in Hogwarts, you can’t wear it for this aesthetic.
Natural Fabrics and Plaid Print
Next up are fabrics and prints. The Dark Academia aesthetic rarely makes use of prints, but when it does, it’s almost always a very fine plaid print. Pinstripes and subtle damask print could work but only in limited degrees. Too big, bright, or noticeable, and it falls out of the range of Dark Academia.
As for the fabric itself, natural threads are preferred. Cotton, linen, and wool, along with the occasional silk scarf, make up the bulk of Dark Academia outfits. Denim, especially blue or distressed denim, is off limits.
When dressing in this style, it’s important to remember that it’s extremely polished despite its relaxed, beatnik-inspired silhouettes. Loose-fitting trousers are welcome, ripped jeans not so much.
Neutral and Muted Colors
Each branch of the ‘-core’ aesthetic group has its own signature palette. It’s pastels and browns for Cottagecore, white and pastels for Angelcore, and browns, whites, and blacks for Dark Academia.
You can also wear other colors provided that they’re on the darker end of the spectrum. Pops of color can be added to a Dark Academia outfit with burgundy, velvet, navy, fern, and even old rose shades.
Note that it’s old rose, not pastel pink. While Dark Academia allows for lighter shades, they still have to be muted versions of those colors. Wear your Dark Academia clothes in pastel shades and it’s no longer Dark Academia but an offshoot, Light Academia.
Though not often featured in aesthetic mood boards, an accessory can be incorporated into a Dark Academia outfit. That said, no plastic, or at least, obviously plastic, accessories are welcome. Only gold, silver, and pearls, along with other classical accessories, are used as finishing touches for this style.
Good Dark Academia aesthetic accessories include cameo lockets, pearl bracelets, 16-18 inch necklaces, and gold or silver watches. Interestingly, gemstones are rarely used in this aesthetic despite their associations with old world charm that dark Academia tries to copy. When you do wear a gemstone, however, it’s best to have it in a ring, pendant, or earrings, and only in minimal amounts.
A Romantic View of the World
No, not that kind of romantic. Though romantic has come to mean gushy feelings and rom-com movies, the romanticism that Dark Academia embodies is that of the 19th-century Romantic movement.
The movement is a spiritual predecessor to Dark Academia and values literature, art, music, architecture, history, and philosophy as both hobbies and academic disciplines. In terms of personality, Dark Academia involves a Romantic hero-esque attitude towards the external and internal world.
Following the template inspired by 19th-century poet Lord Byron, a Romantic hero is a literary archetype that actively goes against the flow of mainstream society and lives a somewhat egocentric life where the cultivation of the self and following your heart’s true desires are placed above everything else, including moral norms and practicality.
A Romantic personality isn’t immoral, it’s amoral and while some Romantic heroes of classic literature, like Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Kill Your Darlings (2013)’s Lucien Carr can be self-destructive, to say the least, others are grow to be more open-hearted like Edmond Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo.
Is Dark Academia Just a Bespectacled Spectacle?
Dark Academia’s low key decadent and unique optics has left some people wondering if that’s all the aesthetic really is: appearances.
Japanese organizing expert Marie Kondo became famous for her KonMari method, a decluttering technique that was featured in two books and a TV series called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. She bases her decluttering philosophy around what does and does not spark joy, but Kondo failed to spark joy when she shared that books that no longer spark joy should be decluttered.
There was no similar uproar for other objects, mind you. People were fine with clothes being decluttered, but literature, gods forbid that you throw out a book, an oh-so-precious font of wisdom, even if you’ll never read it again. Naturally, this inspired a lot of anger, sadness, and disgust from bibliophiles who were outraged at being confronted with the idea that books were just objects as well.
Aside from the sentimental aspect of holding onto literature you love, there’s also the use of books as status symbols. It doesn’t seem obvious at first especially since we usually think of handbags and gold toilet seats as status symbols, not books. But what do we really get from the flagrant display of personal book collections, many of which, as other bibliophiles know, haven’t been read yet?
In an article for The Good Men Project, Matthew Sweet writes, “The new status symbol of the pseudo-intellectual: Owning tens of thousands of books.”
Sweet introduces the idea of an “anti-library,” a sort of posh, hipster-y library with unused books that are left on display for the sole purpose of helping the collector show off how smart they are.
For Umberto Eco, books are tools of his trade in the same way that a plumber has his toolbox. There is no sentiment or pomp to a library, just a question of whether the books are useful or not or, framed in Kondo terms, a question of whether they still spark joy.
Applied to Dark Academia, an aesthetic whose entire schtick involves looking like an intellectual philosopher and art connoisseur, there’s a realistic chance that a chunk of Dark Academia fans don’t even have the love of “intellectual pursuits” that they appear and claim to. In short, just optics.
Do you like Dark Academia? Maybe you can share your thoughts on what Dark Academia means to you.
While you think about it, you can check out It’s Not Just You, Academia Has Always Been Elitist, an article on how higher education has historically been tied to class and appearances.