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Did people actually think the dress was white and gold?

In February 2015, a picture of a dress took the internet by storm and sparked an intense debate about the colors people saw. While some insisted the dress was white and gold, others argued it was blue and black. This phenomenon revealed differences in human color perception and became a viral sensation known as “The Dress.”

The Original Photo

The dress in question originated from a washed-out photograph taken by Grace Johnston, an amateur photographer. On February 26, 2015, Grace posted the photo on Facebook prior to her friend Cecilia Bleasdale’s wedding, asking for opinions on the dress color. The overexposed lighting of the photograph made it difficult to discern the actual colors of the dress.

While Grace and Cecilia saw the dress as blue and black in real life, the photo sparked heated disagreement online. Within hours, the post went viral as people debated whether the dress was white and gold or blue and black. Social media lit up with arguments over the elusive color of “The Dress” as the post was shared globally. #TheDress became a trending topic on Twitter and other platforms.

Individual Color Perception

The dress debate revealed variations in human color perception. While some people saw white and gold when viewing the photo, others saw blue and black. This contradicts the common assumption that visual perception is universal. In reality, individuals perceive color differently based on multiple factors.

According to experts, differences in human eyes, brains, and environments can influence color vision. For example, aging can yellow the eye’s lens and block blue light. Lighting conditions also dramatically impact color appearance. The original washed-out photograph of the dress lacked strong cues to help identify the true colors.

Additionally, human brains interpret color contextually. We associate shadows and lighting with certain colors subconsciously. Ultimately, individual differences in human neurobiology and psychology affect how we perceive the coloring of objects. This explains why reasonable people can view the same image of a dress and adamantly see different color combinations.

Explanations from Vision Scientists

Neuroscientists and vision experts investigated the dress controversy to understand why people saw different colors. Many proposed that human color constancy mechanisms were involved.

Color constancy refers to the ability to perceive consistent colors regardless of changing lighting conditions. To achieve color constancy, the brain makes assumptions about how lighting interacts with object colors. This unconscious process allows us to identify true object colors despite variances in light.

However, color constancy assumptions can be tricked, such as in unusual lighting situations like the washed-out photograph of the dress. In the ambiguous lighting, some people subconsciously perceived the dress to be in a shadow and assumed the true colors were white and gold. Others assumed a blueish backlight and saw blue and black as the real colors.

Researchers have identified cells in the visual cortex associated with color constancy. Differences in how these neurons function likely contributed to individual interpretations of the dress photograph.

Other Contributing Factors

In addition to color constancy, other biological and environmental factors likely influenced perceptions of the dress:

  • Age – Aging yellows the eye’s lens, causing less blue light to reach the retina.
  • Gender – Women may have a slight advantage in distinguishing reddish colors.
  • Lighting – Viewing conditions (such as device settings) affect color appearance.
  • Culture – Cultural associations and prior expectations can impact color vision.
  • Language – Some linguists hypothesize that language may influence color categorization.

With all of these variables at play, it becomes less surprising that people perceived the dress photo differently. The image triggered a perfect storm of visual and cognitive conditions that led to starkly opposing interpretations of the dress colors.

Viral Spread

Within 48 hours of being posted, Caitlin McNeill’s original Facebook photo of the dress received over 400,000 likes and 10 million views. As the debate went viral, notable celebrities and companies joined the discussion on social media:

Person or Brand Stated Colors
Taylor Swift Blue and black
Justin Bieber White and gold
Nike Blue and black
Adobe White and gold
Buzzfeed Blue and black
Wikipedia Blue and black

The dress debate gained international attention and exposed differences in human visual perception to the masses. But it also raised skepticism – did people really see white and gold, or were they just playing along with the viral meme?

Surveys Confirm Diverse Perceptions

Several online polls and surveys provided data on what colors people saw. The results consistently showed that people were nearly evenly split:

  • Buzzfeed – 52% blue/black, 48% white/gold
  • Wired – 50.6% blue/black, 49.4% white/gold
  • Washington Post – 46% white/gold, 42% blue/black
  • Wall Street Journal – 46% blue/black, 42% white/gold

Additional surveys by research groups like The Salvation Army confirmed these close percentages. The even split in responses suggests that many people did genuinely see the dress as white and gold.

Controlled Experiments

To dig deeper into individual differences in color perception, scientists conducted controlled experiments isolating variables that may influence viewing of the dress photograph. Here are some of their key findings:

  • Age – Younger people were more likely to see white/gold, while older people tended to see blue/black. This matches age-related changes in color vision.
  • Lighting – Dimming lighting conditions increased the probability of seeing the dress as white/gold.
  • Image Size – Viewing smaller versions of the image correlated to seeing blue/black.
  • Individuals saw consistent colors when testing multiple times, confirming innate differences between groups.

Interestingly, factors like culture and language did not significantly impact perception. Overall, the experiments substantiated that lighting conditions and observer characteristics reliably predicted interpretation of the dress colors.

The Dress in Real Life

As online debate raged, Roman Originals – the British company that designed the dress – confirmed its colors were royal blue with black lace embroidery. They provided comparison photos to prove the dress was indeed blue and black under normal lighting conditions.

Yet even when shown alternate photos or the actual dress, some people’s minds refused to be changed. The viral image had established such strong color associations that people struggled to see the dress objectively.

This reveals the power of top-down visual processing in the brain. Once we form a subjective perception, it can be stubbornly persistent even when the sensory input changes.

Lasting Impact

While the fervor eventually subsided, the dress left a lasting impact. It demonstrated that aspects of vision we take for granted, like color constancy, actually break down in ambiguous situations.

The dress inspired vast research examining the neural mechanisms and psychological phenomena underlying color perception. It proved that individual differences in vision are not as insignificant as we may assume.

The power of the photo to “break the internet” also popularized the notion that objective facts can be interpreted subjectively. In a world increasingly polarized by differing opinions over even basic facts, the dress serves as an important reminder of the complex variables shaping human perception.


The dress photo debate revealed profound facts about vision that changed how we understand human color perception. Controlled experiments and surveys confirmed that many individuals genuinely perceived the dress as white and gold, not just blue and black. Differences in factors like age, lighting, and innate neurobiology reliably predicted how people interpreted the ambiguous image.

While the great dress debate may seem trivial in retrospect, it exposed the inner workings of visual processing and the subjectivity of perception. The power of the viral photo to shatter assumptions and spark heated controversy revealed just how differently two people can view the exact same image. In an increasingly polarized world, the dress reminds us to keep an open mind to diverse perspectives.