Light Academia Fashion: The Essential 2021 Guide to the TikTok-Inspired Style Trend.

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Discover everything you wanted to know about the Light Academia aesthetic, fashion and outfits, and how it differs from Dark Academia, in this 2021 guide.

After a year in which the brooding Dark Academia subculture became one of the hottest fashion and lifestyle trends to grace social media, 2021 is a great time to get to know the more uplifting Light Academia aesthetic.

With the Light Academia aesthetic lighting up TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest, learn more about the trend and discover Light Academic fashion and outfits in this guide.

Watch: Explore Light Academia Fashion

If you would prefer to watch, rather than read, more about the Light Academia aesthetic, check out this video:

What is Light Academia?

Light Academia is a fork of the “Academia aesthetic” or subculture that relies on intellectual, cultural and university influences to foster community and guide choices on everything from lifestyle, fashion and bedroom design to books, movies, art and music.

Those who adhere to the Light Academia aesthetic or subculture are guided by the celebration of idealized small moments of academic life as well as (often European) literature, art, history and architecture.

Fandom defines the Light Academia aesthetic as “about the warm and positive, pleasurable parts of student life.”

Reddit contributors describe the Light Academia aesthetic as “so beautifully soft and pleasant” and possessing “a lighter and generally less depressive visual and physical appeal” than Dark Academia.

Buzzfeed suggests that those who fit the Light Academia aesthetic are detail-oriented, “have a passion for classic literature and fine art,” value the little things in life, and “would love nothing more than to sit under a big tree and write poetry.”

Photo credit: Sidharth Bhatia

Light Academia activities

The activities and associations of Light Academia often eschew technology. Think:

  • hanging out at neighborhood museums, cafes and campus dive bars;
  • meeting friends outdoors to study, discuss literature, or hike; and
  • carving out quiet time to journal, breathe, explore nature, enjoy a cup of tea, garden, or experiment with a new recipe.

The appeal of the Light Academia aesthetic

Light Academia is an uplifting aesthetic, and not just for the Gen Z and Digital Natives who are driving the trend on TikTok and Instagram.

During the past year of pandemic lockdown, I have gravitated increasingly towards university-appropriate fashion as I have sat in front of my computer wistful for more personal interactions.

This neutral-and-pastel sweater from Reformation could be part of a Light Academia outfit.

Given the dual focus on comfortable-yet-dignified fashion and uplifting, technology-free interactions, the Light Academia aesthetic can prove inspiring for everyone from my Digital Native daughters to Generation X and Boomers, and to women and men alike.

Light Academia is just one example of an aesthetic that individuals may look to for community and for influence on fashion and lifestyle choices.

Examples of other aesthetics are Dark Academia, Grey Academia, Cottagecore, Grunge, Metrosexual, Rude Boys and Rude Girls, and Thriftcore.

(Quick aside: My brother, a fan of ska and adherent of Rude Boy style in his teens, named one of the dogs we had growing up “Rudy,” short for Rude Boy.)

Light Academia vs. Dark Academia

Light Academia is one of several aesthetics or subcultures that celebrates academic and intellectual pursuits. Other forks include “classic,” Dark, Darker, Grey, and Romantic Academia.

Dark Academia exploded in popularity in 2020 as the result of social media. The Dark Academia aesthetic is similar to Light Academia in that it takes inspiration from scholarly figures, culture and activities, but the Dark Academia subculture is more somber, brooding and, at its most intense, bleak.

Kristen Bateman of the New York Times defines Dark Academia as “traditional academic with a gothic edge.”

While some adherents of the Dark Academia aesthetic focus only on the fashion and intellectualism, others in the subculture “romanticise mental illness as well as unhealthy habits like caffeine addiction and a lack of sleep that borders on insomnia,” points out Tanvi Krishnakumar at Her Campus.

Light Academia, as a response to Dark Academia, sheds those brooding and potentially self-destructive elements.

(At Vox, Rebecca Jennings glibly characterizes the Light Academia aesthetic as “Dark Academia, but girlier and in the summer.”)

Perhaps the best analogy in literature would be Shakespeare’s comedies are to Light Academia as Shakespeare’s dramas are to Dark Academia.

One challenge in differentiating Light vs. Dark Academia online is that many social media users tag their posts with both #lightacademia and #darkacademia hashtags to juice as much popularity as they can from platforms like Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok, which muddles the results for users.

This scene is more representative of Cottagecore than Light Academia. Photo credit: Clarisse Meyer

Light Academia vs. Cottagecore

Light Academia is different from the Cottagecore aesthetic that has gained popularity thanks to celebrities like Taylor Swift.

While the Light Academia aesthetic is focused on university and intellectual pursuits, Cottagecore is centered on an idealized depiction of rural life.

Isabel Slone of the New York Times explains the Cottagecore aesthetic as “modern escapist fantasies like tiny homes, voluntary simplicity, forest bathing and screen-free childhoods… [placed] inside a delicate, moss-filled terrarium.”

The BBC calls Cottagecore “the rise of the modern rural fantasy.”

The Founder of the Reddit LightAcademia sub depicts the Light Academia aesthetic as “less frilly and hyper feminine than Cottagecore.”

Light Academia fashion tends towards light colors and tones. Photo Credit: Tamarcus Brown

Light Academia fashion and style

Fashion is a huge component of the Light Academia movement. Light Academia fashion is influenced by heavy doses of nostalgia and prep, showcasing outfits that would fit right in a quad in Cambridge in the early 20th Century.

What are Light Academia outfits?

Light Academia outfits fit a scholarly mold and are generally characterized by neutral and light color palettes.

In addition to neutral, dusty and pastel colors, plaids and stripes feature heavily in Light Academia fashion.

For Light Academia outfit and fashion inspiration, look towards Instagram’s lightacademia hashtag, which has hundreds of thousands of posts.

Ella Emhoff, daughter of Doug Emhoff and stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris, stood out at the 2021 inauguration wearing a striking jacket that fits the Light Academia aesthetic with its brown plaid and scholarly-looking judicial collar. (Ella’s jacket was from Miu Miu, a Prada-owned brand established in 1992 and named after Miuccia Prada’s nickname.)

Light Academia color palettes

Your Light Aesthetic outfit’s color palette could include soft neutrals like rose brown, cloud grey, sugar cookie tan, or dusty pastels like crepe pink, vintage blue, or buttercream yellow.

You can play with complementary color palettes at Scheme Color. Etsy also has a great selection of light color palettes to inspire Light Academia fashion.

Pinterest is another good option for Light Academia fashion and makeup advice and color palettes.

The wide-brimmed hat, flowy dress and vintage suitcase smack of Light Academia fashion. Photo credit: Iurii Melentsov

Light Academia outfits for women

Light Academia outfits for women might include:

  • Cozy cable knit sweaters, cardigans, crewnecks and sweater vests;
  • Flowy dresses and A-line and pleated skirts;
  • Plaid pants and smart jeans;
  • Relaxed single and double-breasted blazers;
  • Trench coats and pea coats;
  • Argyle socks;
  • Flats, loafers, Mary Janes, and lace-up Oxford shoes for women;
  • Wire-rimmed, horn-rimmed or other nostalgic eyeglasses for women.

Outfits in the Light Academia aesthetic rely heavily on relaxed, cozy and comfortable fabrics including cashmere, linen, cotton and corduroy. Also look for vintage, washed and worn fabrics for a vintage or nostalgic vibe.

A plaid skirt in neutral tones is in keeping with Light Academia fashion.

Where to buy Light Academia fashion for women

For reliable online stores for Light Academia fashion for women, look to:

  1. Anthropologie and Free People for women’s boho and vintage-inspired clothing.
  2. Alex Mill, if you can afford it, is an excellent destination for Light and Dark Academia fashion including herringbone top coats, sherpa peacoats, striped crew neck sweaters, chunky cardigans, pull on skirts, and flowy shirt-dresses.
  3. Asos for cheap trenches, sweaters, pants, shoes and more.
  4. Boden for British-designed, pastel-heavy Bretons, cardigans, dresses, skirts, blazers and more that fit the Light Academia aesthetic very well.
  5. Brandy Melville for relaxed basics with Light Academia fashion flares like pleats, plaids and argyle.
  6. Banana Republic, J. Crew and Madewell for Light Academia basics.
  7. Club Monaco for affordable luxury wardrobe staples for women.
  8. Cos is great for Dark Academia, and pretty good for Light Academia.
  9. J. McLaughlin for ribbed turtlenecks, velveteen jeans, striped button down shirts for women, cashmere wraps and flare-legged pants.
  10. Lark and Row by Amazon for cute cardigans, wrap dresses, A-line skirts and slacks for women. (See this guide to Amazon’s fashion brands for women for more options for Light Academia fashion.)
  11. Miss Patina London for serious retro-inspired dresses, skirts, trousers and other women’s fashion pieces that fit with the Light Academia fashion aesthetic.
  12. Miu Miu is having a moment as the result of Ella Emhoff’s star turn in the Prada brand’s memorable jacket during stepmom Kamala Harris’ inauguration as Vice President. While Ella’s jacket is not available on the website, there are plenty of other overcoats and blazers with a Light Academia flair and Ruth Bader Ginsburg-inspired collars. Be warned: Their clothes are not cheap. Outerwear starts at about $2,100.
  13. Modcloth for trench coats and blazers, cute dresses with pockets, vintage-inspired midi dresses and swing skirts, light-palette colorblock sweaters, rompers, tunics and more that fit particularly well with the Light Academia aesthetic.
  14. Ministry of Supply for workleisure slacks and button-downs for women. (You can get 15% off at Ministry of Supply with code MF15.)
  15. Storets for oversized cardigans, plaid shirt jackets, structured blazers and colorful pleated wrap skirts.
  16. Threadup for an outstanding collection of vintage and new-to-you Light Academia fashion.
  17. Vint and York for wire-rimmed and nostalgic eyeglasses for women.

(The brands above are also stellar options for Dark Academia fashion outfits.)

For more options for Light and Dark Academia fashion, see this list of stylish women’s online clothing stores and boutiques.

A Light Academia outfit could include a button down shirt and shawl collar cardigan.

Light Academia outfits for men

To assemble Light Academia outfits for men, try:

Where to buy Light Academia fashion for men

For Light Academic fashion, as well as Dark Academia outfits, for men, look to:

  1. Asos – You have to sift through a lot of sand to find the treasure, but Asos can be a good option for everything from chunky cable-knit roll-neck sweaters to cheap double-breasted trench coats for men.
  2. Bonobos for Light Academia fashion chinos, corduroys, casual button down shirts and sweaters.
  3. Brooks Brothers and J. Press to satisfy the preppiest end of the Light Academia fashion spectrum. (Think Repp ties, argyle socks, sweater vests and corduroy pants). For even more preppy clothing options, see my guide to the best alternatives to Brooks Brothers.
  4. Everlane for quality sweaters, t-shirts and chinos.
  5. Huckberry to find new menswear brands and Light Academia-appropriate chinos, corduroys, fisherman cable-knit sweaters and casual button down shirts and shoes.
  6. Ledbury, an amazing online men’s clothing retailer, for British-inspired button down dress shirts, blazers, chinos and ties.
  7. L. L. Bean for fisherman and roll-neck sweaters, flannel shirts, corduroys for men;
  8. Ministry of Supply for workleisure pants and button-down shirts for men. (Explore Ministry of Supply CEO Aman Advani’s advice for your first purchase, and take 15% off with coupon code MF15.)
  9. The Tie Bar for cheap button down shirts, v-neck sweaters, ties and socks. 
  10. Todd Snyder – You could build an entire Light Academia clothing wardrobe from the pages of Todd Snyder’s catalog of military-inspired menswear, though his clothing isn’t cheap. (Learn more about Todd Snyder via my review of Todd Snyder’s flagship store.)
  11. Urban Outfitters for vintage-inspired fashion for men (and women). Also see this list of alternatives like Urban Outfitters for more options for vintage-inspired fashion for men and women.
  12. Ace Marks and Beckett Simonon are excellent options for Oxfords, Wingtips and other Light Academia-appropriate dress lace-ups for men.
  13. Oliver Cabell is a good option for drivers, casual shoes and sneakers for men.
  14. Vint and York and EyeBuyDirect for nostalgic and scholarly eyeglasses for men.

For even more inspiration for Light and Dark Academia fashion, see this list of more than 100 stylish men’s online clothing stores.

Resources for Light Academia aesthetic and fashion

Ironically, though not surprisingly, while the Light Academia aesthetic focuses on offline interactions, the Light Academia community has been built online across social media platforms.

Light Academia on TikTok

Inspiration for the Light Academic aesthetic can be found on TikTok’s #lightacademia hashtag.

Light Academia on Reddit

Reddit’s LightAcademia subreddit, which is chock full of Light Academia reading lists, fashion tips and moodboards. Reddit also hosts a Light Academia reading list.

Light Academia on Spotify

If you’re looking for Light Academia music, Spotify has a host of Light Academia playlists.

Light Academia on Goodreads

For literature, Goodreads has a Light Academia reading shelf.

What is your favorite option for Light Academia fashion?

Let me know if I missed your favorite Light or Dark Academia fashion brand in the comments. (Also feel free to share your perfect Light or Dark Academia outfit.)


About Jake

Jake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age.  Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.

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