Image description: a human skull on a black background
Do you keep a journal? Do you write it in black pen? Do you only wear dark clothing and tweed? Do you drink coffee in old cafés and only enjoy listening to vinyl? Do you spend too long in the library at the expense of your physical and mental wellbeing? Do you divide your time between playing chess and ruminating upon the transience of human existence? If so, then you may be aspiring to the ‘Dark Academia’ aesthetic, a subculture that revolves around the joys of learning and self-discovery but with a visual focus on extravagant epochs of history that promoted the study of classics within a liberal education.
This is an aesthetic that evokes raw nostalgia through its romanticisation of preppy vintage fashion, classical literature and gothic architecture. It reached the TikTok mainstream during the pandemic, a time when we were told to stay at home, and in the grips of existential agony, hankered after the glories of a distant past. Posts featuring #darkacademia reveal short clips of students snooping around moody, gothic buildings in old cities like Oxford and Cambridge, as well as guides on how to dress to fit the aesthetic. There even featured a ‘Choose your fighter’ Dark Academia edition with male characters wearing long black trench coats and female characters in plaid skirts.
This is an aesthetic that evokes raw nostalgia through its romanticisation of preppy vintage fashion, classical literature and gothic architecture.
Despite its invasion of social media fandom and its associations with pseudo-intellectualism, classism, and eurocentrism, the aesthetic has valid literary origins. This is primarily in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a dark thriller about a shady group of Classics students at a New England boarding school who take their mysterious teacher’s advice too literally. Seeking higher sensation and a way to light their ‘pure fire of being’, they read further into the Greek tragedies of Euripides and head into the woods to establish a Dionysiac cult. The plot follows the protagonist Richard Papen as he uncovers a web of secrecy and intrigue. The book encompasses sex, drugs, and violence whilst sustaining a morbid fascination with the picturesque: it draws on Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime and its mingling of beauty and terror.
Similar themes of death, danger, mysticism and twisted morality suffuse the works of writers whom Dark Academics hold in the highest esteem. Byron, Shelly, and Wilde explore ways to seek oblivion in their personal lives and self-absolution in their poetry, as they stretch towards some higher ideal of experience in order to eclipse death itself. The Picture of Dorian Grey and the imagery it conjures embody the Dark academia aesthetic. It highlights the primacy of youth, and the need for joy and authentic experience.
The pandemic starkly reminded us of one of the few things we all share as humans: mortality.
Consistent with the existential train of thought which Dark Academia inspires, films such as Dead Poets’ Society appeal to this inner desire for self-discovery and self-knowledge while embracing poetry and the joy of learning. The film derives its magnetic sense of intrigue from another slightly elusive but wise old teacher, in this case Robin Williams, who persuades his students to rage against the drab status quo and etiquette of upper class America, to take inspiration from poetry, to suck the marrow out of life in the remembrance that one day we will all be food for worms and rot in the earth. He exhorts them to carpe diem.
If this all sounds too whimsical, it helps to remember the circumstances in which this aesthetic first gained global traction through social media. The pandemic starkly reminded us of one of the few things we all share as humans: mortality. It taught us that the memento mori cliché should not be shunned but celebrated. We should never forget to seize the day.
Image credit: Matthew MacQuarrie via Unsplash