Dark Academia: The Truth About the Genre & Subculture

dark photo of a gothic arch and through the archway there is a light - a representation of dark academia

Have you been seeing a lot of people talk about dark academia but can’t quite nail down exactly what it is? I’m here to help! Let’s talk about dark academia, where it came from, and it’s downfalls. But most importantly the future of dark academia. I believe the genre has a real opportunity to be a tool to slowly dismantle oppressive systems that academia is built upon if we pay attention. On the opposite end, if we let the genre go without any critique, I think that it can do a lot of damage too. Let’s talk about it.

Table of Contents

What is Dark Academia

Dark academia is both an aesthetic and subculture that is primarily focused on higher education, the arts, calligraphy, museums, writing/reading, and shadowy classic Greek and Gothic architecture. The subculture focuses primarily on studying classic literature, ancient art, and “high-brow” liberal arts topics. (High brow is being used in quotes because it is a terrible term, more on that in an upcoming blog post) Essentially, liberal arts topics that are regarded as a higher caliber of art than others.

One important aspect of dark academia culture and aesthetic is that it highlights a foregone time in academia. It is not that it takes place at a specific time, but rather there is a joint understanding that it is in the past. We do have some clues to get an understanding of when it takes place. For example, the clothing style inspiration, before the internet, was a time when people may have dressed up to go to class. 

The most important clue is that it is always a glorification and romanticization of a time when upper-class society put an emphasis on liberal education. When ancient institutions such as Oxbridge or Harvard were a space for the elite in a more obvious way (because they are largely still for the privileged). 

What Dark Academia is Not

It is not a look at modern higher education, it is a focus on classical literature in a time when classic literature was a revered study. It is the study of calligraphy and art with a vague sense of being “in the past” where there was more value on these studies. Today we’ve devalued higher education through credentialism and academic inflation by increasing our reliance on formal qualifications or certifications for jobs and increasing access to predatory loans. 

This is not the current state of dark academia, though it is a direction it could go in the future as the genre evolves. Dark academia is defined by a darkness that overshadows the students creating a solemn tone and aesthetic. It is often a murder, overpowered professors, and difficult student life. But I firmly believe the shadow should be a direct confrontation of the dark history of academia, and in the current state of academia, there are a lot of issues to discuss as well.

The Shadow of Dark Academia

Another crucial characteristic of dark academia is the constant shadow cast over the aesthetic. This shadow can be in the form of a literal shadow, a muted and dark filter placed over the photo, or a dark hallway. But it can also take on the form of a solemn tone in writing style. It could even be shown in the settings or plot of the story, perhaps the weather is always gloomy or the students always witness some sort of grotesque or painful situation during their everyday lives.

There’s no set way that the shadow must be exemplified but this shadow must be there. The shadow is the “dark” in dark academia. Today we’re focusing a lot on this shadow, what it means, what it should be, and how to use it to really enhance dark academia as a genre. We will not be allowing the shadow to encompass the darkness of academic institutions in silence, we will be looking at how we can use that shadow to critique academia. 

An spiral iron staircase in a dark library reminiscent of dark academia aesthetic

What Time Period is Dark Academia?

Dark Academia doesn’t take place in a specific time period, though it’s generally given a nostalgic energy that gives it a vague sense of “the past” or sometimes gives a sense of “eternal.” It’s able to maintain this vague time period because it centers around very old institutions that seem to stand the test of time. It is often depicted as of Oxbridge, Harvard, Yale, and other very old academic institutions that have maintained their prestige through multiple centuries, or in Oxford’s case, millennia. 

We get hints about the time through the fashion of dark academia. The fashion is often seen to be 1920’s or 1940s and 1950s prep school uniforms with a gothic twist. But because of the gothic twist, it remains ambiguous. However, one thing is for certain, it takes place at anytime in the past leading up to the civil rights movement. Or at least, in a situation where the civil rights movement and academic inflation have not drastically changed the landscape of universities yet.

Not being attributed to a single time period allows for the space to ignore critique on academia as a whole because there is no set time to draw specific critiques. A vague sense of nostalgia makes it all too easy for many to only give us a vague sense of the institution’s history. Without a specific time period, there’s no urgent need to critique any particular aspect of academia.

However, Oxford was founded over 1100 years ago and in that time, the institution has done some pretty horrific things. But if we don’t attribute it to a certain time period, it encourages us to not take a deeper look. There’s no necessity to investigate the darker side of the institution, the shadow of dark academia. But if we are aware of this, we can take a deeper look at the entirety of the institution and it’s long history. 

Dark Academia Origins and Inspiration

The origin of dark academia is often attributed to Donna Tart’s 1992 novel The Secret History, at least as a storytelling genre. The origins of the aesthetic and subculture are not entirely clear. It’s been around Tumblr and the social media space since around 2015 but seems to have gained massive popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic when social restrictions were at their height.  

Though dark academia as a subculture, genre, and aesthetic seems to have originated around 2015, there are older works that could fit comfortably within the genre as well. For example, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Maurice have been cited as popular influences for the genre. Considering how new the genre is, influential works within the space are still coming out. That means the genre is actively being built as we speak so we will soon see the definition and genre really solidify itself in the coming years. If we’re tactful in how we approach and consume it, we could also see it grow into something incredibly important.

In addition to media influences, it’s important to look at the time period in which the genre emerged as well. It is no surprise to me that dark academia as a genre began in 1992. Federal funding for education took a sharp hit during the 1980s in the USA. And despite efforts to give money back to education spending in 1990, because of inflation, they still took a decrease in funding. In parallel, as we’ve mentioned, with credentialism and educational inflation, colleges and universities have lost large amounts of their prestige. College degrees are becoming a necessity to join the workforce in any measure rather than further education for the privileged.

Dark Academia Aesthetic 

So we’ve talked about how dark academia is an aesthetic and social media subculture, but what does it look like? Common trends in dark academia aesthetic tends to focus on gothic or greek architecture, old books, calligraphy, writing or poetry, and the arts. Essentially any type of study that was built to be widely inaccessible to those who were not already in power. The aesthetic focuses on the most elitist aspects of these old academic institutions. 

It often even goes further to highlight secret societies within these institutions. These institutions as a whole are built to be elitist and inaccessible and secret societies go even further and become difficult for even the average student to get in. Because as we know, secret societies are made up of only a select few of those who are fortunate enough to attend these prestigious institutions. They are able to keep their activities happening with no oversight at all because they are working in secret in the shadow of academia. (see that shadow, right?)

Most importantly, dark academia aesthetic is always shrouded in darkness. The “dark” in dark academia describes an encompassing shadow that lurks around the campus and the study. It gives a feeling of nostalgia, and foreboding, and acts as a reminder of the “great age” of these academic institutions. 

A study by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project finds that schools were more segregated in 2000 than in 1970 when busing for desegregation began. 

With the nostalgia, the omniscience, and the prestige, this genre seems to say, “universities were better before we modernized them” which is an incredibly dangerous train of thought. Many people who say similar rhetorics are fantasizing about how much better the world was before so many fights for human rights began happening. I will not stutter here, we are better with more equal rights, not before.

Dark Academia Fashion & Style

Dark academia fashion consists of a style that looks much like a prep school aesthetic with a darker, perhaps gothic, twist. This is characteristic of the entirety of the aesthetic. Many people say that the fashion is characteristic of the 1920s or 1940s & 1950s, but considering the gothic twist on the style, it remains ambiguous. 

It seems no coincidence that Brown v Board of Education, which ended lawful segregation in schools, happened in 1953, and school integration didn’t reach an all-time high until 1988. 1988 may have been over 30 years ago, but it is crucial to understand that integration is an actively ongoing battle. A study by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project finds that schools were more segregated in 2000 than in 1970 when busing for desegregation began. 

Though the specific time period remains ambiguous, it is definitively a style drawn on a period before we started to dress casually at university. University dress codes began to lighten up as women gained the right to wear whatever they want in their day to day and as Black Americans were allowed to integrate into our schools. 

As soon as women began regularly wearing pants and school integration was underway (read: we were winning fights for our rights), university dress codes began to follow the trend. Though they began to loosen early 20th century, students, especially women, were subject to dress codes until well into the 1960s. Essentially, dark academia fashion draws from a time when university dress codes were still strong, and therefore a time when the powers that be were able to enforce their power more obviously.

Common Tropes in Dark Academia

Stories in dark academia have a lot of expected tropes that match the aesthetic. The story most often takes place in cooler weather, or as the seasons are changing to be cold. The characters are often classics students (which is the case in The Secret History) or students of another elitist liberal arts study, such as calligraphy, poetry, and art. Any type of art or topic that might be called “high brow” (again, another post on this later).

a dark study room with a chess board that appears to be mid game, reminiscent of dark academia aesthetic

The characters often smoke or drink something that people might find snobby. From drinking their coffee black to indulging in scotch, or maybe they’re smoking cigars. Similarly, the characters are often broody, brilliant, and eccentric (because geniuses are often depicted to be eccentric). Naturally, the characters need to be brilliant because the entire aesthetic is a glorification and romanticization of old academic institutions. Their brilliance ensures that we remember these institutions are for the elite only. Their eccentricity reminds us that we aren’t even built for it.

Some people say that a common trope in dark academia is some sort of rebelling against an authority figure. This can be a teacher, the authorities, or someone else in power. The Secret History centers around a murder among classics students and the circumstances leading up to the crime. As such, there’s often murder in dark academia as well as skirting the rules. 

The dark shadow cast upon dark academia aesthetic makes stories perfect for discussing secret societies. The shadow is a perfect analogy (or cover) for a secret society operating in secret, or in the shadows. Secret societies are a perfect place for rebelling against something, though they are often not rebelling against structural societal issues because membership is incredibly exclusive. 

With exclusivity like that, members are generally already benefitting from systematic structures. Which is how they gained membership in the first place, and do not want to fight against the system as a whole. You will often see the secret society in dark academia fighting against a teacher or authority figure, but not working to enact structural change.

Critique of Dark Academia 

Dark academia may look like it is solely about a passion for learning, but there’s a lot to criticize about the aesthetic and genre. First and foremost is that it’s exceptionally white and Eurocentric. The majority of dark academia media does not foster an inclusive space for people of the global majority and you can see it in books or on screen. Though this is the case with the majority of media, I’d argue that it’s especially harmful in dark academia because of the history of these institutions. Let’s look deeper into that.

It seems to romanticize a time period before the civil rights movement and before integration. It looks at institutions before integration and gives them a nostalgic energy implying things were better then. It may include rebelling against an authority figure or a secret society, but all in a way that generally upholds harmful systems of oppression. The shadow of dark academia is the perfect vessel to showcase the harmful history of these prestigious institutions. We have an opportunity to use dark academia as a critique of academia instead of a glorification thereof.

The History of Universities in America 

The biggest issue with the overbearing whiteness of dark academia is that many of the institutions in which dark academia generally takes place (as mentioned before: Harvard, Yale, old US institutions) have a history of systematically barring entry to BIPOC students at best, and at worst, being actually built by enslaved people. At the very least these institutions were able to rise from the wealth that was forged on the backs of enslaved people. That means that not only did profits from slavery help fund these institutions, but for a lot of these old universities, especially in the south, enslaved people literally built college campuses. 

Those of us who have been a part of academia know that the space was not built for us and it continues to not be for us.

These white students were able to attend university for free because the money was coming at the exploitation of enslaved people. Would it not have been for the free labor that they were exploiting, higher education may not necessarily have been free to these students at all. The money of America comes from somewhere and so much of it comes from denying it from others.

Colleges, Universities, and Slavery

In the book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Craig Steven Wilder says that “the story of the American college is largely the story of the slave economy in the Atlantic world.” These old institutions would not exist with the same prestige as they do were it not for slavery in the United States. 

Like essentially everyone else, institutions fought incredibly hard to keep institutions exclusive in order to maintain their prestige. To this day there is legislation making it more difficult for anyone who is not white to enter. Those of us who have been a part of academia know that the space was not built for us and it continues to not be for us. It’s irresponsible to write about academia, an institution that has systematically kept the global majority out, without being intentional with how we represent the institutions.

Keeping the demographic of white people only in dark academia encourages the narrative that only white people should have access to higher education. This is especially dangerous in the actively resegregating time we are in today.

Romanticization of the Past 

One of the main tenets of dark academia is that it focuses on a vague idea of “the past.” Dark academia is not just a glorification of learning, gothic architecture, and old institutions, but romanticizing what it used to be. 

Over the past decades, we have been working incredibly hard to make academia more inclusive and accessible to more people. We’ve been cutting down legislation that makes it harder for BIPOC to gain admission to these institutions and we’ve been creating legislation to make up for the biases that these institutions are built upon. And to be clear, they are fighting back incredibly hard.

Not only are we furthering the idea that only white people should have access to higher education by not intentionally including representation in dark academia, but we’re also implying that these institutions were better when they were less inclusive. Coupled with the media not showing people of the global majority in their portrayals of dark academia really paints a very precise narrative. 

Romanticizing the past of these institutions while not discussing the horrors of what they’ve done is irresponsible. It paints an incorrect picture that academia was better before integration and before we won back many of our rights.

Eurocentricism in Dark Academia 

Dark academia focuses specifically on Western institutions. As of now, the genre doesn’t spend time focusing on non-Western institutions or even knowledge (though it could in the future!). It’s very focused on old institutions but it is pointedly not the oldest institutions in the world. It’s very exclusively the oldest institution only in the colonial nations. This means that it’s specifically centered around institutions that were built with the help of wealth made on colonialism and imperialism. 

The focus on Western institutions gives off the impression that they are the pillars of old education. And by ignoring older institutions or other prestigious institutions around the world it is also regaridng Western knowledge as superior. We’ve talked about the timeless energy that comes from dark academia. It doesn’t have a specific time period but it does have a vague sense of nostalgia and “the past” while simultaneously romanticizing everything about these institutions. 

By doing both of these together, it gives off the impression that Western institutions are to be revered for their age while ignoring the fact that they are nowhere near the oldest or only academic institutions in the world is an intentional misdirection. 

Erasure of History and Discrimination 

The knowledge learned by the West is knowledge won through conquest and blood.

Because of the focus on Western education, as a genre, it holds Western education on a pedestal while disregarding education elsewhere.  Dark academia explicitly does not include institutions that are not founded and built on white supremacy. Because of this, when there is a lack of criticism of imperialism in the plot, the genre feels very reminiscent of Western imperialism and the destruction or theft of knowledge not originally from the West. It also implies that institutions that are founded on white supremacy are superior to those that may not be.

Imperialism has a history of erasing, destroying, and stealing from the world for its own gain. If our dark academia is only discussing the prestige of Western universities, we’re ignoring the fact that so much of the knowledge that is held in these institutions is stolen. We ignore that people were learning, keeping records, and becoming experts before imperialism. Many of these records are erased, destroyed, or taken as their own knowledge by colonizers. When we do this we erase the experiences, lives, and knowledge of the colonized. 

The Future of Dark Academia

There’s a huge opportunity for dark academia to grow as a genre and start tackling these incredibly important systematic issues. The inherent shadow cast over dark academia has such a chance to be in direct parallel with the oppressive history of these white supremacist institutions. If we are able to use that inherent shadow to shed light on these systems, we are one step closer to dismantling the systems of oppression.

University in the USA used to be free, funded on the backs of exploited free labor by enslaved people. It was able to be free because of the labor that was being exploited there. Oxbridge is an institution that has hoarded stolen knowledge from around the world and held it exclusively to be given only to a very specific people. The knowledge learned by the West is knowledge won through conquest and blood. 

Dark academia as a genre and aesthetic has the chance to use that shadow to begin the slow and endless work of dismantling oppressive systems in academia. Many authors have already begun doing this! But it’s important to always remember that people of the global majority interact with academia far differently than their white classmates. This difference is rooted in a violent history that dark academia has a real chance to tackle. 

We can all start this work by supporting dark academia books by people of the global majority. Babel by RF Kuang tackles the history of empire at Oxbridge by showcasing how the university has no qualms about using their students to claim more knowledge for themselves. It works at tackling the nuance of those that were forced to help these institutions gain knowledge and an attempt to fight back against these powers.

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé tackles the sinister underbelly of secret societies in majority white institutions. Often secret societies are “hidden” from those in charge, but largely only in a way that means that they are free from the regulations that come from being “official.” Faridah does an incredible job really showing readers how differently Black students must interact with academia in order to survive. 

There are more books coming out that are great examples of this. But you can begin by supporting authors of the global majority writing dark academia. Because we have to interact with academia differently, these stories are going to be far more critical of academia. It’s a step in the right direction to begin dismantling these systems and work toward a better future. 


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8 Comments

  1. god i love you and your intelligent intelligent brain

  2. This is so incredibly well-written and researched! 🖤 I feel that the same criticisms of Eurocentrism can be applied to gothic novels in general as well. I’m glad to see books like Babel and Ace of Spades that are starting to break this down.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes!!! It can honestly be applied to near any genre youre so right! but the way dark academia romanticizes it makes it so strong here! Thanks for reading 🤍🤍

  3. Amanda I love your brain! Truly an inspiration.

    1. Ah! Thank you my love 🤍 I appreciate you for stopping by! 🤍

  4. What a great exploration of this genre! I haven’t read many dark academia titles (I did read THE SECRET HISTORY some years ago), but I am looking forward to getting a hold of BABEL.

    1. Thanks so much! Babel is so good, i hope you love it!!!

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