Dark academia is a social media aesthetic and subculture centered around higher education, writing/poetry, the arts, and classic Greek and Gothic architecture. The subculture is associated with ancient art, and classic literature.
The fashion of the 1930s and 1940s features prominently in the dark academia aesthetic, especially clothing items worn by students at Oxbridge, Ivy League schools, and prep schools of that period. Some of the articles of clothing most associated with the aesthetic are cardigans, blazers, dress shirts, plaid skirts, Oxford shoes, and clothing made of houndstooth and tweed, its color palette consisting mainly of black, white, beige, browns, dark green, and occasionally navy blue.
The subculture also draws on idealised aesthetics of higher education and academia, often with books and libraries featuring prominently. Activities such as calligraphy, visits to museums, libraries, and coffee shops, as well as all-night studying sessions are common among proponents.
Seasonal imagery of autumn is also common. Imagery of Gothic architecture and Collegiate Gothic architecture, candlelight, dark wooden furniture, and dense, cluttered rooms often occurs. The sub-culture has been described as maximalist. Universities that are often featured in dark academia imageboards include Oxbridge, Durham University, the University of Edinburgh, and Harvard University.
Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History, published in 1992 and which tells the story of a murder that takes place within a group of classics students at an elite New England college, has been credited as being the inspiration for the dark academia literary genre. In 2015, the genre began to grow into a aesthetic on social media site Tumblr, with the creation of a book club that centered around classic and gothic novels. The aesthetic then grew into a distinct sub-culture, seeing a wave of popularisation on Instagram led by Ryan Taylor and Maria Teresa Negro in 2017.
A number of classic works of literature, such as Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Maurice by E. M. Forster, as well as the works of writers such as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley have been cited as either influential or popular among the subculture, or fitting within the subculture's aesthetics. More recent books, such as JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, and Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo have also been included. 
A number of films and TV series have also been credited as fitting into the aesthetic. The 1989 Dead Poets Society film, and the 2013 Kill Your Darlings film have in particular been credited as among the original sources of inspiration for dark academia. Writing for Screen Rant, Kayleena Pierce-Bohen has listed TV shows such as Ares, The Umbrella Academy, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Magicians as among works that fit within the aesthetics.
Bookriot writer Zoe Robertson stated that the subculture draws on "seductive depictions of shadowy extravagance" and reminds her "to see the rot in the foundations of an institution I can’t stay away from, and build my own school in defiance." One writer compared it to the contemprary cottagecore lifestyle aesthetic, saying that while cottagecore requires a home in the country and leisure time for crafting, dark academia's "simple act of putting on a blazer and reading Dostoevsky is far more doable."
Some have attributed the rise in popularity of the subculture as a reaction to cuts to university funding and the corporatisation of higher education. Honi Soit writer Ezara Norton stated that it "reveals a deep disillusionment with [education models that devalue knowledge unless it can be used to generate profit], and a longing for a space free to learn unencumbered by a neoliberal agenda."
In part in reaction to the growth of the subculture, the related light academia subculture has experienced a rise in popularity, often featuring lighter and softer imagery and colours and more overt emphasis on optimism.
The aesthetic has faced criticism and prise for being Eurocentric and for failing to separate itself from dominant education norms. Many of the works that feature prominently in the sub-genre were created by white men and feature only white male characters among the leads, often in elite settings. The artistic canon of classics that the subculture draws on also has historically been selected based on explicitly racist ideals. The subculture has additionally been criticised as potentially romanticising colonialism, in part by drawing on aesthetics of the elitist 19th and early 20th century British ruling class.
Others have argued that the subculture places too much emphasis on the aesthetic of art and higher education instead of proper studying of those works and the accompanying understanding. It has also faced criticism for potentially glamourising unhealthy behaviours, such as sleep deprivation, overworking, and obsession. The potential promotion of high usage of alcohol and caffeine has also been a source of criticism.
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