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UT Austin Professor Kevin Dalby Discusses Dark Academia: What Is It and How Is It Tied to COVID-19?

As COVID-19 disrupted educational institutions worldwide, high school and college students combined their passion for learning and their attraction to social media to promote Dark Academia's burgeoning subculture.

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As COVID-19 disrupted educational institutions worldwide, high school and college students combined their passion for learning and their attraction to social media to promote Dark Academia’s burgeoning subculture. In this article, UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor, Dr. Kevin Dalby, examines a recent cultural trend known as Dark Academia.

Dark Academia can be classified as a subculture. A subculture with an emphasis on higher education, writing, the arts, classic Greek and Gothic architecture — and a look inspired by clothing associated with Ivy League and prep schools of the 1930s and 1940s. As the name implies, it revolves around a dark color scheme with hints of earthy tones. It is more than an aesthetic, but the aesthetic might be described as preppy Goth.

Dark Academia became popular on TikTok and Tumblr during quarantine, ostensibly because schools shut down and students still wanted to enjoy a sense of community. It is driven by a desire to connect with people who enjoy books and share similar interests.

Dark Academia would fall short of the subculture classification except for one fascinating aspect. A subculture is a culture within the broader mainstream culture, with its distinct values, practices, and beliefs. Dark Academia is unique in this sense only because of the age group of its adherents. Academia’s values and traditions are not separate from the broader culture generally – but not so for young people.

Promoted mainly by users 14 to 25 years old, social posts tagged with #darkacademia have racked up millions of views on TikTok. There are over half a million such posts on Instagram. Although Dark Academia predates the pandemic, its increased popularity has been credited to schools’ shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of Dark Academia’s charms is an affordable aesthetic to develop, especially in comparison to other popular subcultures. The aesthetic is inspired by classic literature and features themes of existentialism and death. It emphasizes inclusivity and gender fluidity with a dedicated LGBTQ+ following.

Even so, the most oft-cited criticism of Dark Academia is that its association with higher learning and Ivy League schools, in particular, creates elitism that does not enable just anyone to be a part of the group. For example, as subcultures tend to do, you might expect that Dark Academia enthusiasts might exclude someone sporting a traditional Goth fashion because Goth alone misses the mark without a tie to a specific literary work.

It is not expensive to acquire cardigans, blazers, dress shirts, plaid skirts, Oxford shoes, and clothing made of houndstooth and tweed, but to completely fit in a neophyte must also include elements of Hogwarts and Tolstoy.

By and large, observers of modern culture are decidedly in favor of Dark Academia as a cultural trend, if for no other reason than its emphasis on education, knowledge, and literature. On the surface, it is harmless and eschews the body modification aspects, such as tattoos or piercings, that other subcultures embrace. Dark Academia, like a trendy subculture, is mainly expected to be short-lived. It lacks enough substance to remain relevant in popular culture for an extended period. As the current pandemic subsides and schools reopen, students will find traditional in-person expression for their social and fashion inclinations.

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby is a UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby’s efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.

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