The secret history of dark academia and post-pandemic aesthetics
Parsing youth culture's strange fascination with OxBridge prep, hyper-nostalgia, and how the "trad" became alt, with Biz Sherbert
Welcome to season three of The Culture Journalist, a podcast about culture in the platform age.
We’re excited to kick things off today with an episode that feels pretty damn perfect for these darkest days of winter. Think: neo-Gothic architecture, darkened libraries full of dusty old books, putting on your smartest blue blazer and rushing across a misty university quad at dawn.
Friends, we’re talking about Dark Academia, a Gen Z-centric fashion aesthetic and online subculture that centers a love of educational pursuits, classical literature, and threads that look straight out of Oxford or Cambridge in 1922. Like Cottagecore, you could chalk it up to young people eschewing the pressures of digital life to embrace a slower, more analog existence — though it’s less about sourdough starters and baby chicks, and more about yearning for a time when students dressed like characters out of Dead Poets Society and school administrators still trumpeted the virtues of learning for the sake of learning.
Though Dark Academia traces at least as far back to the Tumblr culture of the mid-10s, it probably had its biggest and buzziest moment at the start of the pandemic, when mainstream publications mostly explained its popularity as the product of young people feeling nostalgic for in-person education. But students are back at school now, and Dark Academia — with its somewhat controversial fetishization of the Western literary canon and the old-money elite — is arguably more popular than ever. In 2021, it was the most visited page on the fan-generated visual subcultures archive Aesthetics Wiki, which suggested to us that there is probably a lot more behind the trend than meets the eye.
Is Dark Academia a rejection of a world that compels us to constantly perform on social media, even if posting about your vintage book collection is part of the point? Is it a response to the decline of the liberal arts? A return to the hipster fascination with elite knowledge?
Today, we are thrilled to dive deep into the “why” of Dark Academia with writer and fashion theory wiz Biz Sherbert, co-host of the podcast Nymphet Alumni and the brain behind the popular instagram account @markfisherquotes. Along the way, we’ll discuss a few other examples of the “trad” becoming alt — such as the growing popularity of Catholic imagery in fashion and among art-school kids — the increased generational metabolism for consuming past trends, and the rise of the "aesthetic" as an organizing principle for contemporary life.
Before that happens, though, we wanted to quickly fill you in on a couple things that we’re doing differently this season. Since we started this podcast a year and a half ago, we’ve been absolutely thrilled by the number of people who have signed up for our Substack, or even reached out to say that it adds something meaningful to their life.
That said, The Culture Journalist is an independent project that is funded entirely by listeners, and in the spirit of the creator economy issues that we discuss on pretty much every episode of this podcast, we need your support in order to keep putting in all the time and hard work that goes into producing it. Starting this week, we’ll be sending out two different versions of each episode that we release: Free episodes, for our free subscribers, and full episodes, for our paid subscribers.
If you’re already a paid subscriber, we thank you and you don’t have to do a thing. Every time a new episode comes out, you’ll get access to the full thing — and as an additional token of our appreciation, we’ll be sending you a monthly round-up of the best culture recommendations we’ve got, for your reading, viewing, listening, and culinary pleasure.
If you’re a free subscriber, we still love you—you just won’t be getting to hear everything we talk about with our extremely bright and fascinating guests. Subscriptions cost $5 a month or $50 a year. But if you sign up in the next two weeks, you can get a 20 percent discount for a yearly subscription. We’ll be rolling out additional perks throughout the season.
Emilie and Andrea
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Listen to Nymphet Alumni, the podcast she co-hosts
Read more by Biz
Read more on Dark Academia
“The year in aesthetics, from dark academia to mcbling” (Emilie Friedlander)
“What’s dark about dark academia” (Ana Quiring)