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Photographs of “The Dress”: on the left, the image that went viral; on the right, the dress as worn in the wedding (both left and right images via Tumblr)

Perhaps it doesn’t take Kim Kardashian’s bare bottom to #BreaktheInternet. An image of a perfectly innocent lace sheath dress has made its way around the internet — no bare bottoms or exposed skin in sight — as its colors have become the subject of heated debate. The online world is firmly divided between those who swear that the dress is white and gold and those who insist that it’s black and blue.

The dress in question, originally worn by the mother of the bride at a wedding on the Scottish island of Colonsay, made its way onto the internet thanks to Caitlin McNeill, a singer and guest at the wedding. As McNeill told Business Insider, the absurdly pitched debate over the dress’s colors began as mundane bickering between a friend and her fiancé: “What happened was two of my close friends were actually getting married and the mother of the bride took a photo of the dress to send to her daughter. When my friend showed the dress to her fiancé, they disagreed on the color.”

After her Facebook friends were unable to reach a consensus about the colors of the dress, McNeill posted a photo on Tumblr on February 25. “Guys please help me,” she asked. “Is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the f*** out.” McNeill’s post received 500 likes and shares within the first half-hour; by the end of the first hour, the number grew to thousands. A BuzzFeed article then catapulted the dress to viral fame. As of this writing, that BuzzFeed post has received over 27 million views.

“THE DRESS” breaks BuzzFeed.com traffic records (image via JimRomenesco.com)

Journalists were quick to call in experts, citing the debate’s roots in the idiosyncrasies of our biological makeup. “This fight is about more than just social media — it’s about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world,” observed Adam Rogers of Wired. Even color scholars like Dr. Jay Neitz were befuddled. When he initially looked at the photograph, Neitz — who studies individual differences in optical perception — saw white and gold, he told Vice. After consulting his lab at the University of Washington and further examining the image, however, he proposed several conjectures as to why the dress’s colors in the photograph had become such a divisive issue. Differences in color perception could be attributable to age, and those who are older are less sensitive to blue light. Colored lighting also affects our perception of an object’s color; if a blue dress is placed under blue light, our tendency toward “color constancy” will tell us it’s white because we instinctively correct for the lighting source’s color.

The dress is also an illustration of a special optical effect, the Bezold effect, in which the placement of certain colors next to one another affects viewers’ perception of all the colors on the plane or in the image. It’s also possible that the photograph is extremely overexposed and/or poorly color corrected, causing all the hues in it to appear much lighter than they actually are. (Check out the Wired piece for images that demonstrate this.)

The unique and confusing nature of the dress incident has — like so many things on the internet — inspired impassioned opinions from a wide range of individuals and groups, from celebrities like Taylor Swift and Rashida Jones to police departments.

Singer Taylor Swift sees blue and black. (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic) (via @taylorswift 13/Twitter)

Actress Rashida Jones poses a philosophical question. (via @iamrashidajones/Twitter)

California Highway Patrol’s Southern Division wants nothing to do with the internet. (via @CHPsouthern/Twitter)

Given the color issue at the heart of the debate, art institutions have also jumped on the bandwagon — among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Art Fund, and Detroit Institute of Arts — in an effort to drum up publicity and direct people to their collections.

The Detroit Institute of Arts chimes in. (via @DIADetroit/Twitter)

And those tweeting about #TheDress have, naturally, riffed on other popular hashtags, appropriating socially conscious ones like #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen to turn the whole thing into a potentially misplaced joke (#DressLivesMatter and #YesAllDresses).

Arthur Chu chimes in. (via @arthur_affect/Twitter)

Advocating for equal treatment of all dress colors (via @Bobwont/Twitter)

So, amid all this hysteria, what did McNeill have to say when she finally saw the dress in person? “I got to the wedding and the mother was wearing the dress,” she told Business Insider. “Obviously it was blue and black.”

The purported dress for sale on Amazon. 

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Kemy Lin

Kemy is an intern at Hyperallergic and studies visual art and global health at Princeton University. She likes to talk about her hometown (rainy Portland, Oregon) and tweets...

11 replies on “Dress Color Controversy Engulfs the Internet”

  1. There really is nothing “controversial” here. It’s interesting perhaps but that doesn’t equal controversy. I’ve become tired of the clickbait/buzzfeed style of this site. Perhaps if the title had said “that internet dress and the interesting way we see color” it wouldn’t annoy me as much.

  2. Thank you. Jesus it’s been driving me nuts that people are actually calling it white and gold. It’s just funny– as a digital designer and color trained artist/photographer I can so easily spot issues with color correction, ISO, etc. I guess it’s just a reminder that this stuff isn’t necessarily common sense and/or some people just really have zero understanding of light and color. It made me laugh when people said the black areas were “brown.” Yes, technically, because this entire photo has a yellow cast due to the lighting.

    1. You’re right about the yellow cast. If you correct the image to eliminate the excess yellow, the dress in this image looks as blue as it would if it were sitting in front of you. It’s not so much that people have zero understanding of color. Many knowledgable painters and graphic designers I know see this image as white and gold because their brains are telling them to see white and gold. What is so strange about this particular optical anomaly, is that you can’t seem to just turn it off and on. Most people only see it one way or the other, and thus the image brings into focus a quirk in our visual capacity that no one seems to know precisely how to explain.

  3. Age does seem to be an important factor, whether because of biology or acquired visual experience. I wonder if anyone has polled and analyzed according to age.

  4. I think Anyone of any age can train themselves to see if this dress Both ways ( color blind may be an exception). Here’s how: First you have to have an open mind in order to discard the first way you that you saw it. Then you have to consciously change your idea about the light source and view the dress again. I saw the dress as white and gold first because I perceived it as being back lit by a window (bright daylight), and thus in a cool bluish shadow. But – What is actually happening is that the dress may be front of a window but the window is not actually the dominate light source. The dominant light source is a harsh and very bright light with a yellowish cast that is being directed toward the front of the dress. If you ask yourself what the black satin looks like when hit by harsh yellow light – you can realize and imagine that it would look gold-ish. Likewise if royal blue is illuminated with the same light, it could appear lighter, almost periwinkle. When you begin to think of the dress in this way and you look at the photo, it becomes darker and darker until you can finally realize that it is the Royal blue and Black dress pictured in the wedding photo! Once you’ve achieved this – you can then easily flip back to the gold and white interpretation too – just by reimagining the light source once again.

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