Sophie Haigney on Dark Academia.
In the 1930s, the architect James Gamble Rogers confronted an age-old conundrum: how to make brand new buildings look ancient. He was designing a residential college at Yale University called Trumbull, and he devised a plan to splash the exterior facades with acid to give them the appearance of age. He also intentionally broke leaded-glass windows mid-construction and then repaired them in the medieval style, and also created decorative niches for statuary and left them empty to “simulate losses due to breakage or theft over centuries of use.”
Nearly another century later, homages to this faux-aged aesthetic abound online, especially on TikTok. In one such montage, we see bookcases, gilt mirrors, candles, lace, courtyards, quill pens, leather-bound books, clocks with Roman numerals, teacups on a mahogany table, a college quadrangle in the pouring rain. These flash by so quickly it’s hard to even discern the individual elements. “i have such a bad addiction to this type of aesthetic,” TikTok user @academiacoree captioned the video.
Dark Academia is an aesthetic that proliferated on tumblr and has more recently made its way onto Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok. It might be described as Romantic meets preppy, or simply as a jumble of bookishness and an underside of darkness. “A typical post may involve teens showing off their argyle sweaters to classical tunes, followed by a series of photos of leather-bound books, handwritten notes, a page from Wuthering Heights and a shot of classic Greek architecture,” Kristen Bateman wrote in the New York Times Style section last year. And indeed, Dark Academia is often characterized not by a single post but by juxtapositions or collage-like reels, which is why it works so well on TikTok; there, specifics matter less as consecutive images blur into a kind of extended mood. Dark Academia takes inspiration and images from the Ivy League, libraries, boarding schools, and spooky, pastoral scenes. But above all else, I think, it fetishizes a certain kind of Englishness, and especially the English education.
The aesthetics of English education, particularly those of Oxford and Cambridge, have been copied and coopted for centuries by other institutes of higher education both in the United Kingdom and abroad. But they also loom large in cultural representations. Oxford and Cambridge have been the settings of some great—and some less great great—twentieth century novels. (My favorite being The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald, which is wonderfully satirical about Cambridge in 1912.) These universities have played themselves in many movies and on TV; Oxford has also provided the setting for scenes in some of the highest-grossing films of all time, lending its libraries and cloisters to the Harry Potter franchise. Perhaps England’s most significant aesthetic export of the last century has been these filmed shots of towers and bridges and quads replete with weeping willows, often pictured in the mist or the driving rain.
I have been the clichéd American in England. I have even, briefly, been the clichéd American at Cambridge, where I studied for a Masters in American Literature (ha ha) as a waystation to the PhD I thought I wanted but didn’t end up getting. As such, I have drunk tea in a muddy orchard, drunk port in a dim dining hall decorated with portraits of men who died in the seventeenth century, and drunk warm ale in my fair share of pubs called The Red Lion, where I complained about England with a slight undertone of enjoyment.
I did, after all, sign up for a certain amount of misery when I decided to move to England: fog, rain, darkness in the late afternoon, tasteless food, cold and unwelcoming manners. But embedded in that particular characterization of English misery is also the promise of an attendant kind of beauty—candles, thick sweaters, aging books in rich colors, rooms paneled with dark wood. This is what many Dark Academia videos fetishize, in any case—how low clouds seen from a certain angle have a particular appeal, how a cemetery manages to be picturesque despite the obvious shadow of mortality. Watching these TikToks, I was struck both by how attractive this portrait of English academic life is, and how obviously hollow; it is, of course, purely a set of symbols, repeated in slightly different form and arrangement. There’s the tweed blazer, the opening page of an early edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and the edge of an antique mirror, all tantalizing and unreal.
There was a sense in which Cambridge felt like a stage set when I lived there, perhaps in part because I lived in the section of town where tour buses unloaded. I’m not sure that what I felt for the tourists was exactly contempt. After all, I was barely more than one myself. But I did feel bothered by the way their presence pointed out that I was living in a place that had some qualities of Disneyland. In the same sense, I think one might easily criticize Dark Academia posters “treating academia only as an aesthetic backdrop” or something like that. But I think there’s something more interesting at work—the fact that they are honing in so precisely on the backdrop, which is really the foreground, which is the only thing that makes the English education coherent as an experience, and therefore marketable.
In a quick flash of a TikTok montage or a series of photos on Instagram we see something that is its own kind of admissions brochure; it’s selling a version of the promise, or rather the product, of an English education, only perhaps you don’t even need to go. Some of these posts are taken in Oxford or Cambridge or other English universities, but many more are not. Sometimes they even contain knowing advice about how to achieve the aesthetic, by shopping at rare bookstores and vintage furniture shops or buying a particular perfume.
In one video, a TikTok user named @etherealacademic aired a complaint. “i was the backbone of dark academia for like a year & most of my personal photos were uploaded to pinterest (and tiktok & instagram) without my consent!!” she wrote. “never got credited either lol.” This is an almost amusingly academic complaint, fundamentally one about citation, but taking place in a space—the social internet—that has no real practice or politics around it.
The video goes on to show these pilfered images, at high-speed: her scribbling in a notebook, her holding a cup of tea on top of a book, a snapshot of bookcases, a typewriter, her friend’s feet in shiny brown Oxford shoes, a photo of someone else bent over a desk in a dark library, a china plate decorated with a dark butterfly, botanical prints on her walls, her in a tweed skirt holding a stack of books. It’s easy to see how these could simultaneously feel like deeply personal remnants of her life, and how they might look to others like symbols of something more universal— of an experience they wanted to have, one that’s already a set of myths, recycled over and over, about an English education.