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Why do I see the dress as white and gold?

The debate over the color of “the dress” took the internet by storm back in 2015. A washed-out photograph of a dress was posted online, and people fiercely argued over whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold. The disagreement sparked a heated debate, with people unable to believe that others saw the colors differently. So what explains this phenomenon? Why did people see the dress so differently? As it turns out, there are several visual and psychological factors at play that determined how each individual perceived the dress color.

The Original Dress Photo

The original photograph that kicked off the dress color debate was taken by Grace Johnston, an aspiring singer from Scotland. She posted the picture on Tumblr in February 2015, showing a dress she was planning to wear to a wedding. The overexposed photo depicted a bodycon dress with black lace detailing. However, because of the photo’s poor lighting, the dress appeared drastically different colors to people viewing it online. Some saw the dress as white with gold lace, while others saw it as blue with black lace.

Individual Differences in Color Perception

The reason people saw the dress so differently comes down to differences in how our eyes and brains process color. Human color perception is complex, involving the eyes’ photoreceptors, neural pathways, and the brain’s visual cortex. Small differences in any part of this process can alter color perception. Let’s break down the factors at play:

  • The retina’s photoreceptors: The retina contains photoreceptors called cones that detect different wavelengths of light and enable color vision. We each have a unique distribution of the three types of cones, so we may perceive colors slightly differently.
  • Neural pathways: The signals from the cones take different neural pathways to reach the visual cortex. Slight variations in these pathways mean we don’t all see colors the same.
  • The visual cortex: This region of the brain processes the signals from the eyes to create a visual representation of the world. Subtle differences in each person’s visual cortex affects how we perceive color.

With all these factors at play, it’s no wonder people saw the dress photo differently! The ambiguous lighting caused our individual visual systems to interpret the dress color in their own way.

Color Constancy and Context

Another key factor is color constancy – our brain’s ability to perceive consistent color under different lighting conditions. To achieve color constancy, our visual system makes assumptions about the illumination of the environment and discounts the ambient light. This allows us to determine the true color of objects. However, these assumptions can differ between individuals. In the case of the dress photo, some people assumed a blueish shadow across the dress, leading them to perceive it as white and gold. Others assumed a yellowish light source, causing them to see the blue and black color.

The context and expectations of the viewer also play a role. For example, people expecting to see a wedding dress were more likely to assume cool lighting and see white and gold rather than blue and black. Individual experiences and perceptions shaped how people interpreted the ambiguous image.

Optical Illusions and Color Vision

The dress debate is just one example of how optical illusions can trick our color perception. Human color vision relies on comparing color and contrast between adjacent areas rather than perceiving absolute colors. This makes it possible to manipulate color perception using optical illusions. Check out these other ways colors can be deceptive:

  • The checker shadow illusion uses contrast to make two squares appear different colors, when they are actually the same.
  • Simultaneous contrast illusions place colors next to opposite hues to make them look different, like orange next to blue appearing more orange.
  • Afterimages can create the optical illusion of inverted colors if you overstimulate your photoreceptors.

Our eyes and brain continuously make judgments and assumptions about color. Clever optical illusions reveal the shortcuts and limitations of human color vision. The dress photo is just one example of how context and individual differences can dramatically affect color perception.

Research and Experiments on The Dress

In the days following the dress debate, scientists rushed to study the phenomenon. Researchers surveyed thousands of people on what colors they saw and conducted experiments manipulating the photo under different lighting conditions. Here is a summary of the key research findings:

  • Surveys showed the population was split nearly evenly, with 57% seeing blue/black and 43% white/gold in one study.
  • Women and older people were more likely to see white/gold according to some surveys.
  • People with cataracts were more likely to see the dress as white/gold.
  • In-person experiments found lighting conditions changed what colors people saw.
  • FMRI brain scans showed differences in neural activity between the two groups.

While there is still debate around some findings, the research clearly demonstrated the role of visual processing and the brain in the dress color illusion.

Other Ambiguous Color Images

The dress sparked a surge of interest in ambiguous color images that people perceive differently. Here are some other examples that have divided public opinion:

Image Description
Shoe Some see pink/white, others see grey/teal
Backpack Appears green or pink based on interpretation
Strawberries The red berries appear gray to some due to color constancy

These images demonstrate the complexity of human color vision and differences between individuals. Small changes in perception and assumptions can dramatically change how we see color in ambiguous photos. The examples show that color isn’t always objective – it can depend on the viewer’s visual system and mind.


The dress color debate of 2015 captivated the public and revealed differences in human color perception. Several factors influence how we see color, including the retina’s photoreceptors, neural pathways, visual cortex, and color constancy mechanisms. When interpreting ambiguous images like the dress photo, these small individual differences can lead people to have drastically different color perceptions. While some see white and gold lace, others clearly see blue and black. Clever optical illusions and research on the dress phenomenon shed light on the complexity of color vision. So the next time you get into an argument about the color of something, keep in mind you may literally be seeing it differently than someone else!