The two most popular aesthetics on the internet can be found everywhere, from TikTok and YouTube, to Pinterest and Instagram. The first is cottagecore, a style harkening back to an agricultural past that is more fantasy than history, with a focus on returning to nature reminiscent of the hippie movement in the late 1960s and the Romanticism movement of the early 19th century.
The second is dark academia, an aesthetic that harkens back to a different sort of past. The dark academia aesthetic’s focus is centered on lifestyles based off of the elite colleges in the early 20th century that romanticizes academia and the college lifestyle with added mystery and elegance.
Like the cottagecore aesthetic, dark academia is more of a lifestyle, encompassing not just clothing and interior decorating, but also various activities, attitudes and media. They often also incorporate a color palette of darker neutral shades like ivory, brown, gray and charcoal.
Dark academia clothing is based specifically on prep schools from the 1930s and 1940s. Blazers are a must-have for dark academia followers of any gender and are part of the inclusivity of the trend. Interestingly, the blazer is a fairly gender-neutral piece of clothing, especially in the shades that are characteristic of the aesthetic and it’s flattering on a variety of body types. This makes the aesthetic feel more accessible to people of all genders and body types.
Other important parts of the clothing and fashion aspect are sweaters, Edwardian-inspired or button-down blouses, cigarette pants and loafer shoes. The idea is to look vintage and preppy, with prints such as plaid and muted colors.
“The androgynous vintage blazer is definitely representative for the aesthetic,” said fashion historian Dilara Schloz, in an interview with the New York Times. “It can be worn by boys, girls and anyone who does not fit into any of these definitions. Anyone can be feminine and anyone can be masculine. The silhouette of a classic Dark Academia outfit often reminds us of a 1930s or 1940s men’s look.”
However, there’s more to dark academia than just fashion. Like cottagecore, dark academia gives a focus to activities that accompany the aesthetic. While cottagecore activities are based on reconnecting with nature, dark academia focuses on learning and romanticizing one’s academic success.
While an adherent of cottagecore might grow flowers and bake pies, the dark academic will read the classics, write essays and analyze poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been particularly useful to college students who are already required to do these activities for school.
There have even been fractures of the aesthetic that focus on not just the humanities, as the mainstream version of the aesthetic does, but also the sciences, mathematics and even dance spaces.
One aspect that sets aside dark academia is the literature genre that both inspired the aesthetic and is a result of it.
Both Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and the Harry Potter series are cited by early creators in the dark academia aesthetic as inspirations for the look and fantasy of the aesthetic, with a focus on school, a dark atmosphere and a thriller-mystery plot surrounding eerie murders.
These works of literature inspired the aesthetic and also other books with similar elements, creating a sub-genre of dark academia. In Amy Gentry’s article, “Dark Academia: Your Guide to the New Wave of Post-Secret History Campus Thrillers,” she cites dark academia as the inspiration for her work as well as many others.
“Despite its success, The Secret History did not produce a rash of imitators at the time,” Gentry wrote. “But readers who grew up worshipping The Secret History have grown up and started writing novels of their own.”
Modern novels that are part of the dark academia canon include Gentry’s own novel, Bad Habits, Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill and If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio.
Films such as Dead Poet’s Society and the classics glorified by the aesthetic round out the dark academia canon to give a certain cultural weight that cottagecore does not quite have an equivalent to.
However, this focus on the classics has also led to criticism of dark academia. Like with cottagecore, dark academia is accused of glorifying imperialism and colonization with the focus on British prep aesthetics and the romanticization of traditional texts.
There are also accusations of elitism and over-romanticization of substance abuse and mental illness that would be detrimental to adherents of the aesthetic, according to Tanvi Krishnakumar in their article “Dark Academia: The Toxic Cultural Paradigms promoted by a Dark Academic Aesthetic.”
“Dark academia is a Eurocentric aesthetic,” Krishnakumar said. “Dark Academia also tends to romanticise mental illness as well as unhealthy habits like caffeine addiction and a lack of sleep that borders on insomnia. While the same observation can certainly be made of college students, at least we’re doing it for a reason.”
Although there are parts of dark academia that are presented as an answer to cottagecore, particularly in accessibility.
According to the New York Times Article “What is the Tiktok Subculture Dark Academia” by Kristin Bateman, the style tends to be cheaper and more affordable than cottagecore.
“To be part of Dark Academia, you don’t have to have access to a country house, a field of flowers, a big kitchen for baking or an expensive prairie dress,” Bateman said. “Most of the clothing Dark Academia fans wear is vintage and can easily be found in secondhand stores or sites.”
Cottagecore and dark academia are thoroughly entwined. One cannot be written about without the other. While both lifestyles have very different aesthetics, they both have a very similar core appeal. Both aesthetic lifestyles are about creating a more romantic and meaningful life, which appeals greatly to the more nihilistic generations of Gen Z and Millennials.