Writing with a quill pen dipped in ink, sitting in the flickering of candlelight in a book-lined study, and vintage tweed paired with knitted jumpers and brogues have all become the height of fashion for autumn 2021.

Known as dark academia, this trend has brought the hallowed halls of ancient universities to the digital worlds of TikTok and Instagram. On Instagram, the tag #darkacademia now has over 1 million posts, and Grazia has named the aesthetic as autumn 2021’s biggest trend. The TikTok generation has keenly embraced the tweedy cosiness of scholarly life.

Centred around an idealised experience of studying at European and North American universities, this romanticised lifestyle of learning emphasises knowledge, culture and literature. In fashion, it is expressed through a hybrid of historicism and Victoriana, vintage country wear and thrifted clothing.

But this is not the first time that dressing to look clever has been in vogue. Performing intellectualism through dress has been on trend for centuries. Here, we will explore five of the most intellectual fashion trends in history.

1. The Bluestockings

The term “bluestocking” came to be used as a derisive term for intellectual women, but its origins are more fashionable. 

The Blue Stocking Society was founded in the 1750s in England by Elizabeth Montagu, known as Queen of the Blues, alongside other ladies of the Georgian elite. Unsurprisingly, there had been few opportunities for women to discuss classical literature, politics, and philosophy within the glittering ballrooms and drawing rooms of 18th-century England. Frustrated at women’s intellectual starvation, this group of fashionable ladies met to discuss these topics.

Blue stockings were part of the relaxed, informal wear that the group wore to their gatherings. Unlike the glimmering sheen of the white or black silk stockings of high fashion, the rustic simplicity of blue worsted wool stockings was seen as informal and intimate, and a symbol of their rejection of the sartorial expectations of high society.

One bluestocking, the novelist Frances Burney, recalled that a potential attendee who did not have fashionable clothes suitable for a formal evening occasion was told: “Don’t mind dress! Come in your blue stockings!”

2. Dressing Like a statue

During the 18th century, the classical worlds of ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered by Europe’s intellectual elites. 

Woman in dress with green umbrella.
Women left their hoops behind for formless dresses that evoked the drapery of neoclassical dress. Wikimedia

From architecture to literature, neo-classicism became the fashion. Projects like the excavation of Pompeii ignited the European imagination about this romanticised classical past. Inspired by the recovered statues of women dressed in elegant drapery, fashionable ladies cast off their stays and hoops to mimic these classical half-nude statues.

This rather impractical drapery was transformed into the respectable, high waisted, white muslin gowns familiar to modern audiences through Jane Austen productions. Resembling a tall, column-like statue was all the rage.

3. Romanticism

From billowing shirt sleeves to tousled locks of hair, the sartorial aesthetic of the Romantic poets like Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats is evoked in dark academia itself. Romanticism championed ideals over convention and is epitomised by the melancholy, intelligent, and brooding Byronic hero archetype.

The gothic and historically inspired aesthetics of Romanticism spread to fashion, which adopted features such as medieval slashing (a technique in which the outer fabric is cut to reveal another colourful silk beneath) and Tudor-esque neck ruffles. These fantastical styles, which reimagined and sentimentalised history, spread from an intellectual desire to overthrow neoclassicism in favour of resplendent Renaissance history.

4) Dress reform and artistic dress

The late 19th century saw a series of intellectual revolutions in dress, which rejected the restrictions and formality of Victorian high fashion. In the 1850s, women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer began a trend among women reformists of wearing large baggy trousers, now known to us as bloomers.

Baggy trousers may have swiftly gone out of style, but Victorian intellectuals continued to invent new fashions that reflected their academic principles. 

Painting of women at a gallery.
This painting contrasts women’s artistic dress (left and right) with fashionable attire (centre). Wikimedia

Spearheaded by the pre-Raphaelites, artistic dress, also known as Künstlerkleid, called upon romantic medievalism and rejected the structured drapery of Victorian high fashion. In line with the hand-crafted aesthetics and ethics of the Arts and Crafts movement, the fashion was for flowing loose gowns and gothic trimmings. The aim was to look like you had stepped out of the pre-Raphaelite portrait of an Arthurian lady.

5) Philosophes

In the early 20th century, French philosophers and popular playwrights alike propelled the turtleneck into the spotlight as the anti-establishment, intellectual garment of the age. From Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face to philosopher and accidental style icon Michel Foucault, the turtleneck was the epitome of cerebral style.

More recently embraced by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the clean lines of the turtleneck employed sartorial simplicity to both counter and embody the busy brain. Sharp and sleek dressing reflected modern innovation and creative genius.

In 2021, dark academia is both comforting and clever. For a generation that grew up awaiting their letter from Hogwarts, but who now find themselves learning online, it is perhaps unsurprising that today’s young people have made their imagined landscapes of turrets, tweed and tea in the online space of social media.

Recently Published

In the fast-paced world of cryptocurrency, vast sums of money can be made or lost in the blink of an eye. In early November 2022, the second-largest cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, was valued at more than US$30 billion. By Nov. 14, FTX was in bankruptcy proceedings along with more than 100 companies connected to it. D. Brian Blank and Brandy Hadley are […]
Key Takeaways: The phenomenon of some fireflies’ flash synchrony has puzzled scientists for over a century. The phenomenon piqued the curiosity of many, including mathematicians Daniel Abrams and Steven Strogatz, who named it “chimera” In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a hybrid monster made of parts of incongruous animals – so a fitting name for […]

Top Picks

Key Takeaways: Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been remarkably successful in describing the gravity of stars and planets. However, gaps in our understanding start to appear when we try to apply it to extremely small distances, where the laws of quantum mechanics operate. A new study, published in Nature Astronomy, has now tested […]
Key Takeaways: Digital money is a form of currency that uses computer networks to make payments. It is not the digital nature of cryptocurrencies that differentiate them from digital money, but how they ensure the ownership of digital property that mark them as transformational. The Counter Currency Laboratory, a new initiative based in the Department […]
Key Takeaways: For many people, Buddhism appears to be uniquely compatible with modern lifestyles and world views. Buddhist mindfulness has influenced many schools of contemporary psychology. Buddhist philosophy embraces constant change and the inherent impermanence of all things. The 19th century Burmese monk Ledi Sayadawtravelled the nation teaching meditation and founding study groups. The forms […]


I highly recommend reading the McKinsey Global Institute’s new report, “Reskilling China: Transforming The World’s Largest Workforce Into Lifelong Learners”, which focuses on the country’s biggest employment challenge, re-training its workforce and the adoption of practices such as lifelong learning to address the growing digital transformation of its productive fabric. How to transform the country […]

Join our Newsletter

Get our monthly recap with the latest news, articles and resources.

Latest Titles


Welcome to Empirics

We are glad you have decided to join our mission of gathering the collective knowledge of Asia!
Join Empirics