Dark and Light Academia: The TikTok Trend Where Learning Is an Aesthetic

Dark and Light Academia: The TikTok Trend Where Learning Is an Aesthetic

Who could have predicted that a full year of online classes would make students yearn for a real school life, but indeed, this seems to be what’s happening right now. When I started my chaotic yet very enlightening TikTok journey back in mid-2020, I never would have guessed that there’d be an academia-themed lifestyle trending among the various sub-aesthetics and content creation genres of this Gen Z dominated app. But ever since the pandemic forced students to homeschool indefinitely, teenagers have done what teenagers do and romanticized in-person school and university life to the point of creating an entire aesthetic around studying and learning.

Now, at first glance the idea of “academia” as a (life)style aesthetic may sound like that age-old “nerd” look we probably all remember from our own teenage years, no matter how long ago this may have been: big glasses, messy bun, preppy style outfits. You know the type I’m talking about, I’m sure! But the newer, Gen Z infused academia style aesthetic is a lot more polished and also a lot more complex than teenagers being “nerdy.” Welcome to the slightly weird but ultimately charming worlds of Dark and Light Academia!

Since the pandemic forced students to homeschool, teenagers have romanticized in-person university life and created an entire aesthetic around studying and learning.


Dark Academia: Existential Dread Meets Gothic Chic

As the name suggests, Dark Academia is about embracing the dark side of intellectualism: think brooding, intensely smart but tortured artist, genius professor slowly going mad over his own vast knowledge of the world, or precocious student gradually self-destructing thanks to endless all-nighters and too many stimulants. But, you know—looking good while doing it!

First and foremost, Dark Academia (just like its lighter counterpart) is all about liking learning, reading, accumulating knowledge. To me, it’s actually so amazing to see teens glorify studying not for the sake of just getting through exams but as a valid pastime just for the sake of … learning new things. And thanks to the pandemic, learning and studying in beautiful places outside of the home is a big part of the stylish aspect of the movement, preferably in a historic boarding school or cavernous, candle-lit libraries.

@complexi_te8not a very successful study morning 😬 ##edinburgh ##scotland ##edinburghuni ##student ##darkacademia##lightacademia ##aesthetic ##studyday ##2021♬ ylang ylang by fkj – juliet

In fact, a lot of the Dark Academia aesthetic reminds me of Royalcore, another TikTok aesthetic, since both feature a love for lavish European architecture and Euro-inspired clothing. For Dark Academia, the style is mostly autumnal preppy and very “1950s British boarding school.” Think tweed blazers, woolen sweaters (preferably with a snug fit), tailored coats, plus pants and skirts made from heavy fabrics. The color palette is muted, mostly black, grey, and dark brown. Hairstyles are simple and consciously messy, signaling long nights with little sleep and no time to take care of physical needs.

@shirin.altsohnIf I was a young romantic literature student 🕊 How would you call her?##darkacademia ##vintagevibes ##vintage ##vintagefashion ##inspiration ##aesthetics♬ Originalton – Shirinatra

Some sources I’ve read have also connected the Dark Academia aesthetics to the Classics, though to be honest I haven’t really seen this be much of an influence beyond the occasional mentioning of Latin and Greek quotes. Most of the literature read and referenced seems to be either Romantic or Victorian, with a bit of Jane Austen sprinkled in for good measure (Gen Z loves Jane Austen, I’ve noticed—and I approve of that greatly!).

@cosyfaerieI love making these morning routine videos!🤎 ##morningroutine ##workmorning ##darkacademia ##lightacademia ##grwm ##aesthetic ##bookstore♬ original sound – EARCANDY

Of course, more modern classics such as the Harry Potter series are also a big inspiration here. Indeed, British boarding school life as dreamed of by American teens seems to also be a strong influence—mostly a fantasy version, where creepy, mysterious things happen and turn an otherwise maybe boring experience into an adventure. The by-now cancelled Syfy show The Magicians also has that exact Dark Academia aesthetic, from the tweed-heavy clothes to the creepy-beautiful university halls, and the many mysteries uncovered through breaking rules and bending the very fabric of space and time.

@eddieandthedeadseeing as you all liked my uni, this is another uni (university of liverpool) ##darkacademia ##lightacademia ##vintagefashion ##vintage ##vintageclothes }♬ Hans Zimmer. Interstellar – cozy

But Dark Academia isn’t just about young adult adventuring; it’s also very much about serious intellectual angst, existential dread, and trying to figure out what the heck we are even doing on this rock suspended in space. I was reminded of Dead Poets’ Society, where a group of boarding school boys secretly come together to read Romantic poetry to each other, a rebellious act in the 1950s. That movie is truly peak Dark Academia!

@cosyfaerieVibe with me☕️📚 ##darkacademia ##darkacademiaaesthetic ##vintage ##vintagevibes ##booktok ##aesthetic♬ Reflections by Toshifumi Hinata – Blue

Dark Academia is sometimes criticized as potentially promoting unhealthy views due to its focus on existential angst and the glorification of insomnia and bad health habits such as smoking or forgetting to eat regularly, but I honestly haven’t seen any of that on my TikTok feed. I think that teenagers have always had a fascination with “dark” themes, and as someone who survived the 1990s “heroine chic” aesthetics as a teen, I find the dark, slightly creepy academia styles quite harmless in comparison. But then, maybe Light Academia is more your cup of tea—or coffee, as it were.


Alright Then, What About Light Academia?

If I were to describe Light Academia compared to Dark Academia, I would say it is a healthier, more life-affirming version, a sort of Cottagecore x Dark Academia crossover. The fact that it appeals a bit less to me than Dark Academia probably tells you all you need to know about me and my inner emo teenage self.

@sundriedbirdseedHave a tour 🌸📚 ##countryside ##spring ##primavera ##booktok ##relaxing ##cottagecoreaesthetic ##lightacademia ##blossom♬ Scarborough Fair – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Everything is just sweeter and more playful with Light Academia. Sure, you are still drinking too much coffee, but instead of doing it in the dead of night in a dark, gloomy place, you sit in a sun-drenched French cafe or frolic on a meadow surrounded by colorful spring flowers. Learning and academic pursuits are still at the center of the aesthetic, but again, you aren’t supposed to destroy your health over it, mental or physical. Especially reading as many books as possible is a key component of Light Academia, as is frequenting not only cafes but also art galleries, museums, and again, those historic libraries à la Beauty and the Beast.

@bluechordssPart 2. ##bridgerton ##darkacademia ##darkacademiaaesthetic ##aesthetic ##lightacademia ##literature ##cottagecore ##books ##poetry ##bookstagram ##classic♬ Wildest Dreams – Duomo

The ideal here isn’t the tortured, angst-filled genius that tries to stay as far away from the rest of the world as possible, mostly living an unhealthy, nocturnal life surrounded only by books and despair. This is more about embracing life and appreciating the world around you, while also being a nerd about your study progress. Strangely enough, the movie I instantly thought of was Legally Blonde, with its quirky blonde style icon who can rock a bright pink glitter dress while studying for (and acing!) her LSAT. More recently, the new Little Women adaptation also has that same mix of lighthearted yet also serious approach to learning and life in general.

@sincerelyann🧺🐇✨🌿##cottagecore ##honeycore ##grandmacore ##fairycore ##lightacademia ##cottagecoreaesthetic ##cottagecoreminecraft ##spring ##magic ##harrypotter ##narnia♬ оригинальный звук – Sincerelyannie

For Light Academia, everything is just softer and less gloomy, better suited for spring and summer season, when I imagine all that Dark Academia-inspired tweed and wool will become pretty uncomfortable to wear. Beige, cream, white, and light grey are preferred color pairings—still somewhat monochrome, but not as moody-broody. Sweaters and school uniform type outfits also make an appearance, just a bit more playfully accessorized and worn in a messier, more casual way. Light Academia also allows for softer, cozier fabrics and patterns. I would say you can probably get away with wearing most of your flowery Cottagecore dresses if you want to try out the Light Academia aesthetic, just pair it with a beige blazer or a pair of glasses and you’re good to go.

@3rdfloorcottageWelcome to the tea room 🧡 ##lightacademia ##lightacademiaaesthetic ##tealover ##vintagevibes ##beautifulthings ##cottagecore ##cottagecoreaesthetic♬ so this is love – soft girl aesthetic

Light Academia also places a greater emphasis on self-care compared to Dark Academia, which glorifies neglecting your needs and giving up physical comforts for the sake of learning. In Light Academia, taking a bath, doing your skincare routine, or going for a walk with your book in one hand and a flask of tea in the other is a common social media aesthetic.

@angelawlietspring/summer vs fall/winter vibes ##aesthetics ##darkacademia ##lightacademia ##cottagecore ##style ##booktok ##reading ##xyzbca ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage ##4u♬ Clairo vs SB – lys 🐆🧚🏻‍♀️⚡️🦋🤍

To me, both Dark and Light Academia shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and especially the darker side of the academia style aesthetics isn’t really all that worrying. In essence, it is exactly what the Romantics did back in the 19th century, and we are still profiting from their not-always healthy creative excesses. I think just as with every teenager-dominated style or lifestyle aesthetic, it is mostly about dressing up and really feeling all of your messy, confusing feelings while trying out what sort of personal style you want to go for as a near- or full adult. An aesthetic created around loving books and learning can only be a good thing in the end, and it is quite heartwarming that it was born from students missing their regular school and college life!


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