Aesthetic Detective: Dark Academia
In a new series, Jenessa Williams unravels the aesthetics trends emerging on social media and advises on how you can embrace them for yourself. This month: Dark Academia.
Where does the Dark Academia trend come from?
(Ace & Tate Glasses, Begg X CO Scarf, Nordic Nest Mug, Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials book collection, Falke socks, Uniqlo Jumper, Selezza London Collar, Stradivarius Skirt, Zara Coat, Koi Footwear Heels)
A fascination with intellect, mystery, and daring, all wrapped up in warm winter clothes…when it comes to aesthetic trends, dark academia is certainly up there with the most intriguing of them all.
Some suggest that the trend has surged in popularity as a result of the pandemic; young students craving the structure and discipline of in-person education, or otherwise wanting to lose themselves in fantasy educational worlds as a means of escape, a time before mass capitalism, consumerism, and environmental concern. Either way, the idea of belonging looms large; whether through secret societies, mysterious powers or criminal cases that need to be cracked, dark academia offers a sense of emotional kinship, channelled through communities on Tumblr, Instagram and TikTok.
"Dark Academia is enticing in its celebration of some wholesome, long-forgotten past-times"
Often associated with pretentiousness or a degree of class-based-superiority and exclusivity, dark academia has been criticised for its delusions of grandeur and intellectual gatekeeping (“what do you mean you haven’t read the classics?”), not to mention its hefty fetishization of both euro-centric culture and crime, and the pressure it places on young people to be "successful" through a very narrow lens. Nonetheless, there is no denying that it is quite enticing in its celebration of some wholesome, long-forgotten past-times. When not uploading their outfits or favourite reads to the internet, dark academia teens are just as likely to be practising calligraphy, swotting up on their Latin in the local library, or wandering around outside with an antique camera and a cup of black coffee, capturing moody images of nature and architecture.
What does the Dark Academia aesthetic look like?
(Cos Blouse, The House of Bruar Brooch, Brause Calligraphy Set, Madeline Miller ‘Circe’ book, Toast Trousers, Pull & Bear Sweater Vest, Cambridge Satchel Co. Satchel, Clarks brogues, Weekday Coat, Uniqlo Socks)
Though it may be a digital-age trend, technology is much less important to dark academia than the idea of magic, supernatural occurrences or an overall more disciplined pace of life; reading, puzzling, history. Taking heavy visual cues from both upper-class 19th-century European culture and the aesthetics of American-British preparatory schools; uniforms, tailoring and elaborate layering are all commonplace, worn as if preparing to study in a cold castle or chilled twilight library.
Elements of steampunk or gothic culture bring the "dark" element, as well as a fascination with the quaintly macabre; violent baroque paintings, insect taxidermy, "haunted"-looking Victoriana jewellery or accessories crafted in the image of a romanticised murder-mystery weapon; a poisoned vial, an ornate pocketknife, a heavy spyglass.
"When in doubt, think of the quintessential professor from an old-fashioned movie"
As such, the dark academic aesthetic is the embodiment of the cunning pupil; sharp and curious, but with an individual cynicism that may well end up useful in a sticky situation. To build your suitable wardrobe, you might wish to shop in autumn/winter; this aesthetic relies heavily on textures and contrasting shades rather than excess prints or patterns, relying heavily on monochrome and deep hues of brown, green, burgundy, cream and rust.
Where pattern does occur, they are well-established staples; houndstooth and plaid, checks and stripes, anything that looks both severe and professional. Some dark academics like to play with more traditionally feminine elements—hairbands, frilly socks—but on the whole, the look is normally rather androgynous; button-up shirts, formal trousers, turtlenecks, leather brogues, round "intellectual" glasses. When in doubt, think of the quintessential professor from an old-fashioned movie, and pare down the colours to a darker palette.
How can I embody Dark Academia for myself?
(Zara Blazer, Unicef Market Rings, Florence & The Machine ‘Lungs’ Vinyl, Reiss Roll Neck, Floral Street ‘Black Lotus’ perfume, Bodyshop Matte Lipstick, Esprit Skirt, Urban Outfitters Chess Set, MarleyJaneDotCom Necklace, RedBubble Tote Bag, Vagabond Loafers)
For all of academic elitism, the dark academic aesthetic isn’t overly flashy. When it comes to cosmetics, nails are often kept short and natural, while make-up is either minimal or in-keeping with the darkness of the overall look; grey shadows and burgundy lipsticks. Nothing here should evoke a sense of 2021—look instead for ageless cashmere, wool and tweed in classic styles to create the ideal time-travellers look. Though some of these items can get expensive, many of them can also be easily located at charity shops and vintage markets, only adding to the allure of a personally-curated wardrobe.
"Read, listen, and people-watch far and wide"
The charity shop or lending library may also turn up plenty of media stimulus. Dust off old works by romantic-era authors such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, or invest in a copy of Donna Tart’s The Secret History, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education or The Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials series (preferably leather-bound, of course). The aesthetics of A Series of Unfortunate Events or The Queens Gambit might also provide inspiration, as will a slew of dark academia-beloved movie-book tie-ins; The Dead Poet’s Society, Kill Your Darlings, The Danish Girl.
When it comes to music, classical is a given, but alternative-indie-pop acts whose work embodies dramatic, romantic storytelling might also fit; Florence & The Machine, Kate Bush, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Read, listen and people-watch far and wide, and try to get into that character; what would they wear, think and do? Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to your own dark adventure.
Read more: Aesthetic Detective: E-Girls and boys
Read more: How to style out autumn
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter