#TheDress colour debate draws a spectrum of expert, academic views

The internet may not see eye to eye on the colour of "The Dress." But what about the experts? A vision doctor, neuroscietist, photo expert and philosopher wade into the debate.

Blue and black? White and gold? How a neuroscientist, vision doctor, photo expert and philosopher see it

A Tumblr user unwittingly started an internet sensation on Thursday night by asking whether the above dress was white and gold, or blue and black. A photo on the right shows the actual dress from Roman Originals. (Tumblr, Roman Originals)

The internet may not see eye to eye on the colour of "The Dress." But what about the experts?

Brandwatch, which tracks social media hashtag activity, saw more than 1.5 million mentions of the offending dress since Thursday evening, with celebrities including Taylor Swift, Mindy Kaling and Kim Kardashian wading into the debate after the Tumblr photo meme went viral.

A range of scholars and digital imaging professionals weighed in as well.

So, is the dress blue and black, or white and gold?

Here's what those who really know what they're talking about have to say about the matter:

The Vision Expert

University of Waterloo optometry and vision science professor Jeff Hovis. (Courtesy Jeff Hovis)

Jeff Hovis, University of Waterloo optometry and vision science:

We did a lecture about this today. Probably 90 per cent of the class thought it was white and gold; 10 per cent thought it was blue and black.

In order to perceive colours, you have to have a nervous system. There's no physical measure for colour. Everybody's perspective is a little different.

You're looking at the relative responses to three cones to the light. Certain cones can be stronger. Blue cones could be giving a stronger response, likely you're going to see a blueish colour. Similarly, if the red and green cones are more stimulated and not so much the blue, you'll see more yellow. The receptors can adjust their sensitivity according to the amount of stimulation.

If you think that the person is in a shadow, then you may be more likely to call the dress as white and gold. If you don’t think that the picture was taken in a shadow, then it would be blue and black or grey.  This is an example of the higher cortical areas influencing your colour perception

There was also a study done a couple of years ago that showed there was a systematic difference between how men and women perceive colours. It wasn't a big difference, but it was repeatable and reliable.

Verdict: White and gold

The Digital Colour Specialist

Martha DiMeo, a colour correction specialist and digital imaging expert from Boston, displays a colour-checker used in photography for white balancing. (Courtesy Martha DiMeo)

Martha DiMeo, Photoshop and colour correction specialist with ChromaQueen in Boston:

We also need to be talking about the device that was used to take the  photo. That's an important component.

It has to do with the characteristics of the chip in the camera, and it has to do with the light. When light isn't perfectly daylight-balanced, our eyes correct for that cast.

Here, the exposure is thrown off because the background was so bright.

The camera that captured this photo "saw" the light bouncing off the object in a different way than humans would see it. Digital cameras will pick up colour casts we don't perceive. If the light illuminating the dress was daylight balanced, and the photo was perfectly exposed, the recorded colours would have been different. They would have most likely been closer to the actual color of the dress, so blue and black.

For me, the challenge is what's supposed to be a neutral colour in this photograph? In Photoshop, you can take readings of colour, and what I think should be white if the RGB numbers were not balanced.

If someone gave me no instruction and they said to me, "Would you fix this?" I would have most likely done it to white and gold, and I would have been wrong. But I always work with my clients beforehand to get things right the first-time around.

Verdict: White and gold

The Neuroscientist

McGill University's Christopher Pack studies the visual cortex and holds the Canada Research Chair in the Neurophysiology of Vision. (Courtesy Christopher Pack)

Christopher Pack, McGill University, Department of Neurology, Canada Research Chair in the Neurophysiology of Vision:

The basic thing is the brain’s visual system tries to discount the illuminant. You want to have a representation of the visual world that’s not dependent on how bright the ambient light is.

The business of subtracting signals to eliminate a kind of background is true everywhere in the brain.

In this picture, the background here is bright, most of the colours are pretty bright. So the visual system is aggressively trying to subtract this bright background. The white light is going to contain all the bright colours.

The photo receptors that encode light are very sensitive to light level. The retina tries to subtract that out, so it tries to figure out if I have, say, blue and it's very bright light, I want to measure not the amount of blue light, but the amount of blue light relative to the overall background.

Verdict: White and gold

The Philosopher

Sonia Sedivy is an associate professor and associate chair at the University of Toronto's philosophy department. (University of Toronto)

Sonia Sedivy, University of Toronto Scarborough, associate professor of philosophy specializing in philosophy of the mind and perception:

The metaphysics of colour is not at all a settled field yet. There are highly competing theories of colour — what colour is, what sort of property it is and how it is to be explained.

Since perceived colour depends in part on the contrast relationships in the colours of objects and their surroundings, the discrepancy in the perceived colour of the dress presumably has to do at least in part with the contrast information not being sufficient.  But this does not seem to explain fully why people see such different colours. 

I played with one picture, scrolling it up and down, and it was interesting that when I saw the whole dress — where the background light was also visible — the blue was lighter than when I scrolled so that I saw only the bottom half, in which case the blue was darker.

On its website, Roman Originals describes their royal blue dress as "bang on trend." They got that right. (Roman Originals)

I don’t know why the debate is quite so furious, but it does seem to suggest that people don’t believe that perception of basics such as colours is subjective. And they’re right.

I think it’s fun that people are so exercised by this, if they really did believe that perception varies widely and thoroughly as the saying “it’s all subjective” suggests, why would anyone care?

Verdict: Blue and black

Social Media:

Of the 1.5 million mentions of the dress debacle on social media, Brandwatch found more than 566,600 tweets and retweets for #TheDress.

While the 150,300 tweets for the #whiteandgold hashtag exceeded those of #blueandblack (56,600-plus) and #blackandblue (54,900-plus) combined, a 30 per cent sampling of mentions broke things down this way:

  • Those who perceived the dress as black and blue: 52 per cent
  • Those who perceived the dress white and gold: 45 per cent
  • Both: 4 per cent

Mentions of #TheDress have popped up all over the world. Most of the conversation was centred in the U.S. (59 per cent), followed by the U.K. (8 per cent) and Canada (three per cent), according to Brandwatch.

A word cloud provided by the social-media tracking service Brandwatch shows the most mentioned search terms of 1.5 million mentions of the offending dress. (Courtesy Brandwatch)

Interviews were edited for length


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