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Dark Academia 101: A lesson in romanticizing our school lives

Back To School (But Make It Fashion)

( / Instagram)


Nearly two months ago, classes resumed for the 2020-2021 school year, and millions of students descended into yet another semester of insanity. 

To say it’s been going chaotically would be an understatement. My Google Calendar notifications are relentless, my organs are desperate for a taste of non-caffeinated hydration and I couldn’t describe the nuances of the Japanese economy if you held me at gunpoint (to the dismay of my looming comparative politics midterm).

My TikTok’s For You Page, however, tells a different story — an image of second-hand bookstores, fluttering tweed coattails and coffee shop study sessions that never seem to culminate in any actual exams. 

Dark Academia is an aesthetic centered around study of the classics, appreciation of the arts, and a romanticization of all things scholarship. Think of the herd of history enthusiasts that are always eating lunch in their English teacher’s classroom or the enigmatic girl in your literature class that won’t stop quoting Sylvia Plath. I won’t claim to have any relation to either of those descriptions.

The subculture, as most obscure niches do, can be traced back to Tumblr — photosets filtered to appear vintage and lists of book recommendations. Generic Tumblr dramatization. But today, the aesthetic finds current residence on Tik Tok, housing videos you can’t help but hope to emulate. 

Dark academia is nothing without its fashion: a combination of 20th-century English boarding school and New England universities during autumn. 

Tweed pants, plaid skirts, collared shirts, turtlenecks, cable sweaters, Doc Martens, Mary-Janes, and any other article that gives off brooding academic vibes. The style has also been praised for its androgynous nature — all genders can rock a vintage blazer, second-hand boots or a patterned button-down. And the look lends itself well to sourcing at thrift stores, making the aesthetic a relatively easily attainable one, and one I would even risk melting in the South Florida heat for. 

But the Dark Academia look isn’t complete without a satchel of library books or a hand-me-down paperback tucked under the arm. The aesthetic’s token reading list spans centuries — from the classics to more contemporary interpretations. 

If you prefer the moral superiority of a book published 200 years ago, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad or any of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry may be your cup of tea. But if you prefer to stay in the past few centuries, modern writers have got you covered. 

No writing has shaped the Dark Academia literature scene as much as Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History, a 1992 murder mystery set at an elite Liberal Arts college in Vermont. Since then, countless authors have followed suit and released their own love letters to Dark Academia — M. L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, Elizabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and the more contemporary Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson and The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Steifvater. 

But there’s still no denying the significance of Dark Academia rising in popularity in 2020, almost immediately following the closing of schools nationwide in the wake of coronavirus. Classes went virtual, prom was canceled, graduation became an impossible image — yet the constant yearn for academia continued. 

As most trends are, the appeal of Dark Academia lies in its desire for escapism. Our scholarly lives may be falling apart around us — clouded in a hell of distance learning and deadlines too close for comfort — but at least we can sit outside with a coffee and knitted sweater, rereading our favorite book. Learning about the stars above us and the lives of those who came before us. Thoroughly fascinated by everything academic and new. 

Now if only I could carry that energy with me into week seven of classes. 


Veronica Nocera is a Staff Writer at Rowdy Magazine. Her simple pleasures include hoarding stationery, rewatching 90s rom coms, and romanticizing the lives of 20th-century female authors. She's intensely passionate about the power of language, social justice, and the overlap between past and present. You can reach her at for more info!


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