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Are knitted jumpers racist?

Why has the social media fashion trend ‘Dark Academia’ been criticised for being ‘too white’?

Dark Academia is, to you and I, a new movement or fashion statement favoured among the young that revolves – this part is crucial – around literature. Back in the day, it would probably have been called “preppy”: blouses are buttoned and cuffed, jumpers sport rolled necks, skirts are kilted and blazers and trench coats are thought befitting for the great outdoors. Colour-wise, earthy tones of brown and beige are preferred. Accessories must be kept to a minimum but satchels and glasses are permitted.

Knitted jerseys and tweed jackets are now considered ‘too white’

As with all contemporary trends, dark academia thrives in the dark underbelly of social media platform TikTok where users post and share inspiration for the look. Gradually, it’s becoming more of a subculture than an aesthetic: a quick internet search can throw up dark academia recipes (red wine poached pears, something called a “fog latte” which looks indistinguishable from a normal cup of coffee) and holiday destinations (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh – it’s Bexit-friendly, this movement). But it’s taking off: dark academia videos have received over 18 million views on TikTok and, at the time of writing, there are more than 564,000 posts with the tag #darkacademia on Instagram. Google claims that searches for the term have rocketed by 4,750 per cent.

It is thought that the name “dark academia” emulates a genre of literature, but this certainly isn’t a category displayed at Waterstones. Examples of dark academia books include Donna Tartt’s 1992 murder mystery Secret History, in which various misfit students waft around a college after dark working out whodunnit. The book has sold over five million copies worldwide and is now available in 24 languages. Other books touted as inspiration for dark academia include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s The Glitter and the Gold and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Then there are the more obscure titles that, we imagine, do what they say on the tin: My Dark Vanessa, The Night Climbers, The Hand on the Wall and many, many more. There is lots about dark academia that seems to fit perfectly into the hand of Gothicism; but this is the new, updated, twenty-first century, social-media version.

And, like all twenty-first century social media crazes, it has come under the spotlight as its inclusivity is challenged. Yes, knitted jerseys and tweed jackets are now considered “too white” and thus the dark academia movement is, like most other things, considered racist.

What this fundamentally equates to is that a fashion statement that favours cardigans and woollen tights is racist

“I think the worrying thing is that Dark Academia revolves around symbols of whiteness, economic and cultural privilege, conservatism and nationalism”, Dr Sarah Burton of City University of London’s Sociology Department told the press. She notes that Dark Academia is inspired by: “foregrounded white, thin, middle-class, cis[gendered] women” and added, “even when something like queerness is present it’s always more of an allusion than a clear, inclusive statement … it’s difficult to see where [dark academia] differs from your basic classism and… ideas contained within the books of dead white European men.”

In case you’re struggling here: what this fundamentally equates to is that a fashion statement that favours cardigans and woollen tights is racist. It is the latest in a series of trends, looks, movements and works to be attacked on grounds of lack of diversity.

People of colour are undoubtedly underrepresented in the great smorgasbord of literature and historical fiction available to us. This is, quite simply, a reflection of the times in which they were written.

The good news is that this is changing; society is diversifying, and comparatively quickly too. Just this week it was reported that there are now no all-male boards across the entire FTSE 350. Businesses are better at representing women than ever before. The same applies to people with disabilities; one example of this is the European Space Agency, which last week stated it was particularly encouraging applicants with disabilities to work as astronauts.

We cannot repaint the past, we can only seek to contextualise it and understand it

Television shows, including those set in different periods, are increasingly “colour-blind” or “colour conscious”: roles are cast regardless of the ethnicity of the actors and actresses. Consider recent Netflix triumph Bridgerton. The series, which reached 82 million homes, featured Black actor Rege-Jean Page as regency romantic hero Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings. The same applies to Channel 4’s The Great, loosely based on Catherine the Great of Russia, and 2019’s blockbuster film David Copperfield, with Dev Patel playing the eponymous character in Victorian England. Later this year, our screens will be lit by Black actress Jodie Turner-Smith playing Anne Boleyn – the second time a BAME actress has played the role of Henry VIII’s most infamous queen. And so, the arts industries are moving in the direction of equality and diversity. We are witnessing better representation of BAME actors and actresses on our screens and stages. As a society, we are – in some way – repenting our sins of the past.

But this too has been criticised. In 2017, Lord Julian Fellowes – creator of Downton Abbey – spoke out in defence of the lack of diversity in his period dramas. “I think you must produce something that is believable”, he told Stage newspaper. And here we go back to Dark Academia: it is foolish to criticise a movement for being too white when it is inspired by historical literature in which people of colour are underrepresented. The feeble condemnation of an aesthetic trend adopted by the young reflects a worrying trend in society at large: that of attempting to rewrite history so that it becomes inaccurate.

We cannot repaint the past, we can only seek to contextualise it and understand it. It is dangerous to redress past inequalities and one of the reasons for this is that there is no saying where it might lead. Frighteningly, some schools in America have cut Shakespeare from the curriculum because of his “white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism”. How long until we do the same?

Let us not forget: it is the young in whose hands we will place the future. How can we expect them to thrive if they cannot accurately understand the past?

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