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What is dark academia? An explainer on Gen Z's favorite aesthetic

We ask a stylist to weigh in on the trend and give us ideas for looks.

Dark academia pieces based on the trend that has been taking off on TikTok. Credit: Miodrag Kitanovic / Getty Images / Express / H&M / Dr. Martens / Free People

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When it comes to a trend’s lifespan on TikTok, the clock typically ticks fast. But while countless fashion fads on the platform have come and gone in a flash, one remains among the app’s most popular: dark academia. Blending goth and prep-school aesthetics, the “#darkacademia” hashtag has been taking off since the end of 2020 and now boasts 1.8 billion views and counting.

Though TikTok is a new-school social platform, the academic aesthetic has plenty of timeless, old-school pieces. In fact, you likely already have several styles in your closet that fit the viral vibe. To understand TikTok’s sartorial influence, we asked New York-based fashion stylist and image consultant JenniLee about how to wear the trend—and what dark academia really means.

What is dark academia?

True to its name, dark academia fuses darker gothic elements with preppy Ivy League style. “I would describe it as a boarding school meets goth enthusiast,” JenniLee says of the trend, which is all about blending the two aesthetics. “It's almost like the kids who grew up watching Harry Potter [and have] now discovered Heathers and Edward Scissorhands.” Style and smarts are at the heart of the social media subculture, with looks featuring everything from dark-colored blazers and tennis skirts to trousers and loafers. Many TikTokers set the mood for the melancholic aesthetic, showing off their outfits with a background of books and fireplaces, or looking wistfully out windows.

Like so many 2022 trends so far (looking at you, Y2K), dark academia took off amid quarantine-induced nostalgia. As we enter year three of the pandemic, yesteryear’s glitter and neon-filled styles—which JenniLee attributes to initial escapism—have recently given way to the decidedly darker aesthetic. “There is a sense of collective tiredness and sort of depression, and I think that that sort of feeds into fashion.”

As for why “academia,” the style expert says remote learning likely led to a romanticizing of academic spaces, prompting students to bring the classroom to their closets. “You just really think of English boarding schools and the Northeast area,” she says. “It's all teamed up [with] what's going on with kids in their current state of mind, being able to express themselves on TikTok and…many not being able to go to college [in-person].” Perhaps unsurprisingly given its social media roots, the trend also mirrors pop culture. Fashion meets fiction in “#darkacademia” videos, many of which reference modern media and canonized literature alike.

How can you try the dark academia trend?

As temperatures drop, it could be the perfect time to take a page out of dark academia’s book with cozy, library-ready styles. If you’re hoping to give the trend a try, you’ve plenty of room to adapt the style. Dark academia has spawned a series of microtrends like “light academia,” the same aesthetic in, you guessed it, lighter colors.

Whatever you label it, JenniLee stresses the flexibility of the dark academia trend, as the same staple pieces can easily skew more romantic, dark, masculine, super feminine, and so on with the right styling and accessories. “Depending on how optimistic or pessimistic you're feeling that day, you can really pick up this trend and run with it,” she explains.

She predicts elements of the trend will last another two years, in part to its blend of fashion and functionality. “It's easy to have these articles of clothing that play into these trends,” she says. “And then have them carry over into other aspects of your life and dress up or down, normal or extreme.”

But just because you try out dark academia—or any TikTok trend—doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own sense of style. “At any time when you're exploring different trends and moods, you can put it down and pick up another trend,” the stylist adds, as trends allow us to “continually experiment, grow and really tap into creativity.”

What type of clothing fits the dark academia aesthetic?

If you’re hoping to dip into dark academia yourself, you’ll want to look for clothing in classic collegiate colors, like burgundy, mustard yellow, and hunter green, in addition to more gothic hues like black and brown. Prints like argyles, plaids, and houndstooth are also mainstays, along with fabrics including velvet, tweed, and corduroy. Consider these staple pieces.

Blazers

Blazers from Express and H&M for dark academia trend.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / Express / H&M

Layer your look with a classic blazer.

Dark academia ostensibly blazes a new trail, but blazers and other classic pieces are still key components. Based on your personal preference, grab either a fitted or oversized version in wool or tweed.

For a sleek, school-inspired look, try the Fitted Blazer at H&M, available in black in women’s sizes XS to XXL, or the Charcoal Wool-Blend Convertible Blazer at Express, which comes in charcoal gray in men’s sizes XS to XXL.

Wool or corduroy trousers

Pants from L.L. Bean and Banana Republic.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / Banana Republic / L.L. Bean

Opt for plaid or corduroy trousers to grab that dark academia look.

Channel your inner-professor with a corduroy pant or wool trousers. “The sock is an important accessory,” JenniLee adds, suggesting that you peg and roll your trousers to show off your socks. “Or you're going to want to get [the pants] tailored so they're a little bit cropped and...give them a fake cuff [which] should be...anywhere from an inch or, or a half an inch wide.”

The Slim-Fit Washable Wool-Blend Pant from Banana Republic comes in a preppy plaid, available in women’s sizes 0 to 20. For corduroy, consider the Men’s L.L.Bean Stretch Country Corduroy Pants in sepia or dark charcoal. They come in waist sizes 30 to 44 and lengths 29 to 34.

Sweater vest

Sweater vests for dark academia look.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / ASOS / Forever 21

Sweater vests are ideal for winter layering.

Several styling options are available for the retro knitwear, like layering over a turtleneck or button-down shirt for an extra element of prep. “I think a really fun way to play with the sweater vest is if you find button-down shirts that have very romantic collars or exaggerated collars,” JenniLee says, adding that you can accessorize with a brooch, scarf or necktie tied “ascot style.”

Both the Only & Sons Oversized Argyle Vest from ASOS, available in brown in men's sizes XS to 2XL, and the AE Cable Knit V-Neck Boyfriend Sweater from American Eagle, which comes in women's sizes XXS to XL, are just oversized enough to layer with a shirt or sweater.

Pleated or tennis skirts

Skirts for dark academia look.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / H&M / Forever 21

Put a stylish spin on a school uniform skirt.

School is in session and so are skirts. Whether you opt for school girl-esque plaid or colorful tennis skirts, short pleated skirts are a dark academia staple. If you have a longer skirt on hand, however, JenniLee suggests cutting the hem and leaving it distressed to “play into the darker version of dark academia.”

The Short Twill Skirt at H&M is available in seven colors in women's sizes 0 to 18, while the Pleated A-Line Mini Skirt at Forever 21 comes in black in women's sizes XS to XL.

White Oxford shirts

Oxford shirts for dark academia look.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / Uniqlo / Old Navy

You can't go wrong with a classic button-down.

When it comes to layering, a classic button-down might be best in class. "Mixing textures is excellent, so you could have a really chunky knit sweater with a button-down shirt underneath,” says JenniLee.

Try the Oversized Boyfriend Long-Sleeve Shirt, available in white in regular sizes XS to 4X and petite and tall women's sizes XS to XXL, or the Oxford Slim-Fit Long-Sleeve Shirt, which comes in men's sizes S to 3XL in off-white, gray or blue.

Argyle socks

Argyle socks for dark academia trend.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / Free People / Smartwool

Socks are a staple of the dark academia trend.

Dark academia is all about accessories, and socks steal the show. Try argyle socks for a dose of preppy patterns, or pair a tennis skirt with white knee socks. If tights are more your style, opt for a thick, patterned pair.

Get the Clueless Argyle Knee-High socks, available in one size for women in blue, red, and green or the Everyday Diamond Jim Crew socks, which come in four colors, in men's sizes M to XL.

Loafers

Penny loafers from Madewell and Dr. Martens.
Credit: Getty Images / Miodrag Kitanovic / Madewell / Dr. Martens

Complete your style with a classic penny loafer.

Shoes with what JenniLee calls a “school vibe” are an A+ addition to the look. Complete your outfit with a classic loafer, a Dr. Martens Mary Jane or even a monk strap shoe, which is a dress shoe with straps.

Snag the Corinne Lugsole Loafer in true black or dried maple in women’s sizes 5 to 11, or the Adrian Smooth Leather Tassel Loafers in black in men's sizes 6 to 14 and women’s sizes 5 to 12.

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