Arts & Culture

Exploring Academic Fashion Aesthetics Through Fictional Characters 

This piece is an attempt to look at three major academic fashion aesthetics that have taken over the contemporary world through the lens of fictional characters who have essentially contributed to their increasing popularity. 

Fashion aesthetics are incredibly dynamic- whether they’re based on modern styles or modern renditions of old trends. Over the last few years, bits and pieces of the ideals and visual elements of some major academic fashion aesthetics have slowly crept into the wardrobes and living spaces of young adults all over the world, which have further been promoted by the alluring outfits worn by fictional characters in television and movie adaptations of different literary works. In particular, aesthetics such as Dark Academia, Light Academia and Cottagecore have found a home in the hearts and closets of a myriad of literary characters and consequently generations of people who are inspired by the same. 


Dark academia is a well-known literary aesthetic associated with a passion for learning, an inclination towards intellectual curiosity and an ardent desire to discover one’s purpose. Despite having many shortcomings such as its inherent Eurocentrism and glorification of unhealthy behaviour patterns in pursuit of academic achievement, the aesthetic is widely recognised, appreciated and has been incorporated into the lifestyles of people all over the world – of different ages and with different cultural upbringings. 

(Read also: Of Romance, Literature, and Aesthetics: Inside the Cult of Dark Academia)

The dark academic fashion aesthetic relies heavily on apparel such as trousers, blazers, turtlenecks, cardigans, sweater vests and plaid skirts mostly worn in earthy and dark tones like brown, forest green, tan, dark orange, burgundy and creamcombined with minimal accessorization and footwear such as brogues, Doc Martens and Oxford shoes. 

dark academic fashion aesthetic
The Dark Academia Lookbook (Credits: Pinterest)

It is almost impossible to think of dark academia without thinking about the movie that introduced it to an entire generation of literature enthusiasts – The Dead Poets Society. The boys at the Welton Academy running around the campus in their plain white shirts, V-neck sweaters, sharp navy blazers, grey trousers and loafers are the epitome of a group of dark academics discussing poetry and grand dreams deep into the night. Their Captain, John Keating, whose wardrobe majorly comprises coat suits in a variety of colours like dusky-green, grey and creamy-brown, can occasionally also be seen sporting outfits such as a black round-neck sweater paired with high-waisted beige pants – all of which ties perfectly well with all the other facets of dark academia used in the movie. 

dead poets society
John Keating and the boys (Credits: Allstar/Touchstone/Sportsphoto Ltd)

Another similar example would be Allen Ginsberg played by Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings. From checkered mufflers and ties to beige sweaters and sweater vests, from burgundy pants and overshirts to grey shirts and tweed coats, every single one of Allen’s outfits, topped off by his round-rim tortoiseshell glasses, adds incredibly well to his lookbook in the movie which is based on the quintessential dark academia colour palette. 

kill your darlings
Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg (Credits: Eroteme UK)

In the television adaptation of the Sally Rooney book Normal People, the outfits worn by Marianne Sheridan during her time as a history and political science major at Trinity also have undertones of fashion choices inspired by attributes of the dark academic fashion aesthetic. Kohl-rimmed eyes, a carmine turtleneck sweater, brown plaid pants, rust-coloured overcoat, a satchel and a book in hand would be the paragon Marianne attire for a casual day out at the University or later for drinks with friends. 

normal people
Marianne Sheridan in Normal People (Credits: Element Pictures, Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland)

(Read also: A Guide to Dark Academia)


Though often confused together, light and dark academia are not fundamentally the same aesthetics. In contrast to dark academics’ thirst for knowledge and accompanying existentialism, light academia focuses predominantly on themes of emotional well-being, sensitivity, joy and gratitude. This distinction is clearly reflected in the light browns, light reds, creamy whites and the overall pale-toned colour scheme of light academic fashion which comprises apparel such as corduroy jackets, cable-knit sweaters, trench coats and Mary Janes

light academic fashion aesthetic
The Light Academia Lookbook (Credits: Pinterest)

A character who instantly strikes the mind at the mention of light academia is the nine-year-old Liesel Meminger from The Book Thief. With a closet composed of items such as a long maroon coat, brown leather boots, woollen & sheer leggings and a knee-length plaid skirt, Liesel Meminger is the perfect little light academic who can always be found clutching stolen books to her chest when she’s not perusing them. 

the book thief
Liesel Meminger (Credits: Fox 2000 Pictures, Sunswept Entertainment, Studio Babelsberg, TSG Entertainment)

The historical-romance novel The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society also features a bunch of characters whose fashion preferences fit the image of a light academic. In particular, Juliet Ashton’s wardrobe is a collection of long coats with matching gloves and berets, puff-sleeved shirts in pastels, high-waisted trousers, leather belts and soft cardigans. The subtle pinks, greys and off-white tones that are consistent in her outfits throughout the movie are in sync with the elements of light academic fashion, along with being very pleasing to the eye. 

light academic fashion
Juliet Ashton (Credits: Studio Canal, Tumblr)

The Theory Of Everything, a biographical film on the life of Stephen Hawking, is another movie that has been inspired by the ideals and visual aesthetics of light academia. Stephen’s character wears champagne coloured sweater vests, beige trench coats, neat white shirts and overalls that give him a scholarly look and somehow manage to capture his inner brilliance and optimism. 

Stephen hawking
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking (Credits: Working Title Films, Dentsu, Fuji Television)


The cottagecore aesthetic is centred on values of simple living, self-sufficiency, serenity and empathy for other people. Its visuals, like pressed flowers, farm cottages, embroidered tapestries and baked pies and muffins, are bound to evoke a sense of longing for a life outside the hustle and bustle of city life. As an academic fashion aesthetic, it features slightly loose-fitting, flowy dresses and skirts, puffy sleeves and button blouses in a myriad of soothing-but-also-spark-joy colours like dusty rose pink, olive green, ivory, maroon, beige, ochre, light yellow, pastel lavender and baby blue. 

cottagecore academic fashion aesthetic
The Cottagecore Lookbook (Credits: Pinterest)

Quite unsurprisingly, a character whose hobbies, fashion inclinations and overall aura scream cottagecore is the multigenerational favourite Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. From three-quarter-sleeved long dresses in shades of greys and musky greens to a white-collar shirt paired with a cut sleeve long dress in subtle brown and an embroidered shawl of matching colour, Lizzie’s wardrobe captures the essence of an early nineteenth-century English countryside life perfectly, somehow managing to make a twenty-first-century generation of young adults want to renounce all that’s vogue and trendy for a chance to wear square neck dresses and puff-sleeved gowns on a day-to-day basis. 

pride and prejudice
Lizzie (Credits: Everett Collection, Studio Canal and Working Title Films)

Lastly, it would be criminally wrong to end the piece without mentioning the four March Sisters in Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women who do everything from running around the house to frolicking at the beach in their pastel-coloured yet flamboyant long dresses that are perfectly accessorised with flower crowns, huge picnic baskets and sun hats that are bound to make any viewer admire their version of a beautiful cottagecore life spent reading, writing, baking, painting and resisting gender stereotypes from the ambit of a little town in Massachusetts. 

little women
The March Sisters (Image credits: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Featured Image Credits: Pinterest 

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Shirley Khurana

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