Dark Academia in the Passage

How a fashion genre is born: a moment in the culture throws a spotlight on certain piece or entire looks. Often, that prominence is promoted via a popular film or TV series. Guilty as dressed! In the right year, you would instantly identify my bowler, tattersall shirt and necktie ("Annie Hall"), or yellow leggings, head wrap and black rubber O-ring bangles ("Desperately Seeking Susan"). 

What did you have?

The past year has introduced another fashion genre, Dark Academia, "an aesthetic that revolves around literature, academics, mystery and arts. It is heavily inspired by European architecture, history, Greek Arts, Gothic and Dark elements."  (Source: themoodpalette.com). The aesthetic extends beyond fashion, but just like the '60s flower-power prints, fashion reflects philosophy.

Take time-honoured 'academic' staples like tweed blazers, long cardigans and corduroy trousers, add bits of steampunk, goth, romantic Victorian, thirties Deco—those are the sartorial signifiers of Dark Academia. What is not: denim, fleece, athleisure, preppy stripes, bold colours and overscale pattern, logos, above-the-knee skirts or dresses, puffers, stiletto heels. This is not cottagecore nostalgia either, so no pinafores, ditsy florals or clogs. 

The emphasis is on natural-fibre fabrics (cashmere, merino, tweed, linen) in dark to mid-saturation neutrals. (In summer, Dark Academia would accept linen shorts but prefer a box-pleated skirt to the knee.) One would not ruin the ensemble by being seen to check mail on a phone. Carry a Penguin paperback in a burnished leather briefcase, wear an analog wristwatch.

Auditing Academia

The top is the pivotal piece; anything tee-shirty or minimalist will not be the right mood. Look for cotton, silk or linen in colours that existed no later than the late 1950s. Or, wear a waistcoat over a classic menswear shirt, provided the shirt is not a pastel. (Dark Academia clothing is somewhat high-maintenance as it references an era before synthetics.) 

If drawn to it, you probably already own the skirt or trousers, but it may be years since you bought a certain kind of blouse. 

Clockwise from upper left:

Patchwork silk blouse, Brora; price, £195

Cobbler women's waistcoat; by LaneFortyfive on Wolf & Badger; price, $CDN 374

Tartan chiffon tie-neck blouse, Totty Rocks; price, £129

Shell-button satin blouse by & Other Stories; price, $US 89

I give Dark Academia high marks for its emphasis on slow fashion. Though not for everyone (what do Dark Academics in the subtropics wear?), the attitude suits all ages and bodies—after all, it's already been embraced for at least six decades. 

Just like real-life academics, there are differences according to preference and pocketbook. A young woman might be captivated by the Victorian subgenre and hunt for vintage-style lace-trimmed blouses and swoopy-brimmed hats, while her aunt may prefer 1940s Academia: dark brown oxfords and Pendleton '49er-style wool overshirts worn with corduroy trousers.

I have long cautioned myself, and I admit, others, against wearing an ensemble of vintage clothes when you yourself are vintage. On grown women, I dislike the playing-in-the costume-trunk look, but at the same time adore fine leather goods, tailored trousers, a sharp, fitted jacket and antique jewellery. 

At first look, I found Dark Academia rather studied, and I thought, Do I want this? But when I realized that my favourite coat among women at President Biden's wintry inauguration was a decidedly Academic Miu Miu beaded tweed worn by Ella Emhoff, Kamala Harris' stepdaughter, that said something.

I would wear that coat blissfully, and wondered, is there Elder Dark Academia style? (There are about a dozen Academia style variants, here.)

I recalled a silver-haired woman I saw reading in a park in Paris: she wore a casual updo, a soft, long cardigan, a flowing below-knee skirt in a small check. The palette of blues and grey was thoughtful but discreet. She transmitted an air of relaxed intellectual engagement, and of a woman who took pleasure from her clothes.

Here's an approximation of her outfit.  I would like to wear it now, especially after a year in androgynous basics.

Clockwise from upper left:

Cosy cashmere jacket in "jean", Eric Bompard; sale price $CDN 412

Retro-style navy silk blouse, Lilysilk; price,  $US 159

Navy patent Oxfords by Girotti; price, $US 148

Silver/navy jersey skirt, Brora; sale price, £59

I am heartened that women generations younger than mine are taking another look at quality; cheap Academia, like a substandard education, is neither stimulating nor memorable. 

There is far more to the Academia aesthetic, which one guide summarizes as "influenced by learning", but less stereotypical and more inclusive than the old "prep" style I adopted for ten minutes at university, before letting the sunshine in with embroidered peasant blouses and bellbottoms.

How does this strike you? I might not major in Dark Academia, but it does point me to an option other than jeans, and neatly sidesteps the dreaded sweatpant trend.





Laura J said…
Love this look and almost able to shop my closet ...nice emphasis on natural fabrics and quality. A couple of challenges...finding quality comfortable shoes and without a puffy down coat I’d be very unhappy in winter! Like those styles that can only exist in LA this one, I think, requires a moderate amount of cold and heat. A very enjoyable post!
Ms. Liz said…
That beaded tweed coat from Prada on Ms. Emhoff was the bomb! It was my favourite too and, to me, the stand out in subtle elegance amongst a sea of very nice coats that were worn at the inauguration. Perhaps it was because a young woman was wearing tweed that was beautifully tailored and understated - unexpected.
Ellen said…
This is how I dressed in the 70's. It has always been my "go-to" style.
Ocd said…
How does one of these newly-named types dress in the subtropics? Very unhappily. My current wardrobe consists of about a dozen skirts & a few tops that are more suited for the 7 or so cool days do we get. I have faux leather boots that will last forever because they see little wear. Lots of flat and low heeled sandals, including the thong-type version of flip-flops that annoy people in more moderate climates. Cotton as often as possible. Synthetics are stifling and clammy in the heat.
Some day I hope to go “where the climate suits my clothes.”
Tom said…
This goes so well with your Virginia Woolf wardrobe. I had never heard of this style; I love that some of the how-tos online suggest titles of books to carry (it is hoped the books will be read, not just serve as accessories) In the time period evoked by this style, there were, in truth, very few women in academia. I picture the profs in Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. I myself did not have a woman professor (in a humanities field!) till I was in grad school. She was a young woman married to a very famous, much-married, much older professor. This was the subject of snide comments by the faculty. Working with her was the great honor of my life. She became as famous as her great husband in her turn. She dressed head to toe Burberry. E not T--grading online in this brave new world of education.
Duchesse said…
Laura J: Check out the Norwegian wool. line of outerwear, created by someone who did not want the puffer, but needed warmth. (But gaspingly expensive). Shearling? When I lived in s auper cold climate in the '70s, I wore wool coats with chamois linings to cut the fierce Lake Superior wind. Down outerwear was strictly MEC type gesar.

Ms Liz: Though thrilled to see Dr. Biden there, I thought her coat looked upscale-dowdy, similar to the way Camilla Parker Bowles dresses. Yes, Ms Emhoff was impeccably-tailored and then... that beading!

Ellen: Is it ever harder to find, for you? (not just the styles, the quality.)

Ocd: Linen, in a word, but with some detail, not the baggy styles. A simple cotton skirt with a short sleeve fine cotton blouse. Perhaps a shift, the kind with bust darts, not tight but with some fit. Light cotton trousers with a short-sleeve scarf-print blouse. (You can find discussions about this online. In summary: no flip flops, ever, no polyester. Structured clothing but not tight.)

May you skip over the ocean like a stone.

E.: It's natural to think back to the academics of our university days and what they wore. None of them dressed like their students (jeans, hippie dresses, Villager coordinates). Mine wore pencil skirts, blouses, heels, shirtwaist dresses, twin sets. Some wore blazers and skirts. I don't remember a single woman prof in trousers except for a biology prof who wore a lab coat over hers, who knows what she had on under it. And every male prof wore a jacket, if not a tie, to teach. In summer school their attire was more relaxed.

Sam said…
Mother & aunt of two academics here. US universities pay so little that this generation simply can't afford such high quality clothes. They can't even afford ,,,in time or cash...the maintenance costs of such clothes. I do know of one mid-career superstar who is paid the necessary for this look, and several edge-of-retirement-types, and some admins, but most of the work in our universities is done by people who are severely strapped financially. Mine specialize in Goodwill.
Jane in London said…
Fascinating! I had not come across this clothing sub-genre before.

I adore tweed in theory, but in practice it doesn't do a lot for me. The aesthetic here is probably not for me, though I can admire many of the pieces (that coat...!)

Poor old Duchess of Cornwall: at heart she's a country woman who's just not that interested in clothes, I think.

Desperately Seeking Susan - how that takes me back. Madonna was so cool in those days and I was still (just) in my 20s so I was hugely impressed by her style. Fingerless lace gloves, anyone?

Jane in London
Laura J said…
Duchesse...ooooh if I were working I’d get that hunter green coat ASAP!!,!
Mardel said…
I like many of the options here: the skirts, the idea of trousers, natural fabrics, blouses. The "dark" part of the aesthetic doesn't really suite me, nor do so many tweeds, as I need, and prefer something more colorful and softer, but your choices in the second grouping are lovely and I would live in that outfit. My father was a college professor. He always wore brooks brothers suits, which he saved up for, acquiring a new (custom) one every three to four years. Both of my parents taught us to take meticulous care of our clothes. I admit to having occasionally growing lax over the ensuing years, something I regret now, and I have reverted to those earlier habits.

I have been dreaming of pleated skirts and blouses lately. Kinder on my figure, and much easier to wear in the hot humid season. Perhaps this is just the final bit of encouragement I need. The trick of course, with my hair up now in a messy updo, not to look like a granny who got frozen in the 70s, and it would be easy to fall into that trap. The biggest problem is that our understanding of context of these styles is so different than that of the younger generation, and we need to think lest we lapse into the familiar and this become left behind. Or at least I do.
Murphy said…
So this is pretty much how I dress - I had no idea there was a name for it ! I do sometimes shake things up with a more colorful top, though. A red blouse under a tweed jacket is my idea of wild and crazy :)
Duchesse said…
Sam: The "Academia" does not just refer to teachers, it refers to students too. At my local Goodwill this winter, I found a Gloverall duffle coat, the iconic one with horn toggles and tartan lining, in very good condition (just needed a brushing) for $12. OK, that was a Holy Grail find. (Did not buy it b/c have coats.) The same day I saw any number of good-quality blazers, and some appealing blouses. So if one wants to dress in DA style, it is huntable in the thrifts. Not in one trip, but it's still there amid the sea of Forever21 poly. You are right, thrifting takes time and that is I suspect the major obstacle.

As for maintenance, there is no getting around having to iron a cotton shirt. but persons who choose DA accept that. Care of (for example) a wool jacket is not so onerous, clean at end of season for storage, unless one has a dog that likes to jump on you or a child with little peanut-butter-coated fingers.

Jane in London: There is TWEED and tweed. I have lusted for a Brora Harris tweed coat but tried one on during last thrip to London and it was too rough to enjoy. But there are tweeds blended with a bit of silk or even some discreet synthetic that are if not soft, more drapey. Desperately Seeking Susan and Flashdance together put women in leggings, leg-warmners and sweatshirts worn off the shoulder— a full generation before this latest "everyone in sweats" phase.

Mardel: Clothing maintenance became a lost art when people started to use dry cleaners so heavily; any little spot and off to the cleaner's. There are now sites dedicated to teaching about how to clean, mend and store clothes— I love that. I'll bet your parents had a bottle of dry cleaning solution, a bar of Fels Naptha soap, pressing cloths, clothes brushes, maybe one of those small sleeve ironing boards or a "ham", and of course a sewing basked equipped to mend or darn anything.

Duchesse said…
Murphy: Always fun to see your intuitive choices bundled into a style. Wild Dark Academic, it's such a wonderful image.

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