A scene from “Dead Poets Society”
From the Aesthetics Wiki: “Dark Academia”
Dark academia is a popular academic aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery and a general passion for knowledge and learning. It is one of several variations of academia aesthetic, each with a unique subject focus.
Dark academia’s visuals stem primarily from upper-class European culture of the 19th century and American Prep. The upper class of this time period emphasized a liberal education in which Latin, rhetoric and classics were taught subjects. These are now seen as unusual and slightly esoteric, creating an allure that presents schooling as not dreary or boring, but one that cultivates people that learn for the sake of joy.
Pretentiousness is celebrated within the dark academia community. Romanticizing education and moments in life is the core appeal of the aesthetic. Making grandiose statements and wishes for success is a common text post subject.
Other than the appreciation of learning, dark academia thought includes themes of criminality, danger and mystery. Secret societies, cults and murder are subjects within the aesthetic. Characters within the works of fiction associated with dark academia, especially The Secret History and Kill Your Darlings, live decadent and self-destructive lifestyles involving drugs, moments of intense violence and secrets.
People who use this aesthetic are usually referred to as dark academics. However, using this term in other contexts could potentially cause confusion as the title “academic” typically refers to researchers and professors, while dark academics do not necessarily have recognized credentials.
It is important to note that in multiple ways, dark academia is not new. Rather, it is a continuation of different pre-existing aesthetics that had a basis in artistic periods, literature and mannerisms surrounding the upper class. The dark academia aesthetic referred to in this article is within the context of mid-late 2010s-early 2020s internet culture wherein users, largely teenagers, discuss the contents of the page online. This phenomenon is largely confined to youth culture on social media such as tumblr, Instagram and Tiktok.
The largest and most notable influence on the aesthetic is the ideas and lifestyles of Romantic-era nobles and intellectuals such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Edmund Burke.
The later Aesthetic and Decadent movement, headed by Oscar Wilde, lends the “dandy” and homosexual aspects of the internet aesthetic.
All of these historic periods were reflected in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The sublime, picturesque and beautiful are concepts frequently repeated by the narrator, Richard Papen; the main characters vacation in a remote mansion and get drunk, discuss intellectually stimulating topics and lived decadently, like the Romantic poets did in their famed Geneva trip; and the ritual for Bacchanal is a representation of the same fascination with the irrational.
Appreciation for Donna Tartt herself comes from the Esquire article “The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s’ Most Decadent College,” which describes “the baroque wickedness, the malignant glamour, the corruption so profound as to be exactly what is meant by the word decadence.” This cements the connection of Donna Tartt and her alma mater to the precedents. Additionally, her androgyny, close friendships and rock-and-roll lifestyle are admired by the dark academic audience. Its publication of 2019 also links this article to the rise in popularity c. 2020.
The tag “Dark Academia” originated sometime around 2015 on tumblr and had a relatively smaller reach and referred to the main work that started the aesthetic: The Secret History. The aesthetic resembled a book club more than a true aesthetic and users largely communicated through asks and reblogs to discuss the work itself, with less of an influence placed on fashion and lifestyle. Similar with other fandoms, the The Secret History fandom produced moodboards; however, they did not resemble the typical dark academia aesthetic, instead taking on a more minimalist look with photographic emphasis on symbols relating to characters, typography and fancasts.
Multiple other fandoms also contributed to the development. Many of the visuals came from the Harry Potter series, which was popular at the time; Gothic castles, whimsy surrounding studying, leather-bound books and mystery are clear links to the dark academia aesthetic.
Many of these blogs reblogged content from art history-centered tumblrs, which posted photos of architecture and paintings in the movements described in the visuals section. As bloggers discussed the media that has come to be associated with dark academia and multiple people posted art history content, the community formed and the name was created.
The exact user who coined the term is currently unknown and new information would be appreciated.
The aesthetic evolved over time from an aesthetic that had a small community, was learned through osmosis and focused specifically on the media into what it was today.
On June 30th, 2020, The New York Times published an article entitled “Academia Lives — on TikTok,” making dark academia and the aesthetic community in general, known to an audience typically separate from online youth culture.