Experts Shed Light on The Dress Controversy

eyewa the dressIconic dresses. Who doesn’t love them? Styles come and go, but certain dresses always seem to make the list. An all-time favorite is Grace Kelly’s classic wedding gown from 1956 when she married Prince Ranier of Monaco. Or what about Audrey Hepburn’s white lace Ascott dress she wore to the horse races in My Fair Lady? Maybe the most famous dress of the 20th century would be Marilyn Monroe’s billowy, ivory cocktail dress from The Seven Year Itch, which recently sold for $5.6 million(Source: LongElegantLegs).

On February 24, who could have guessed that a DRESS would break the internet the following day?  It all started when a 21-year-old woman named Caitlin McNeill posted a photo on Tumblr of a dress that had been worn at a wedding she attended in Scotland. She wrote, “guys please help me-is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree…”

What we all can agree on is that no one agrees on the color of The Dress. Vehement online battles ensued. Families were divided. Celebrities offered their opinions in not-so-eloquent tweets. With #teamblueandblack and #teamwhiteandgold so polarized, how were we going to get to the bottom of this mystery? Now that we know The Dress really and truly is blue and black, we can look to science as to why two sets of eyes can see one dress so differently.

Genes Can Affect Color Perception

It sounds impossible that a dress which appears black and blue to one person could appear white and gold to another, but science says that it can. According to Elizabeth Cohen, CNN’s Senior Medical Correspondent, color perception could be linked to genetics. She says the cones in our retinas— the fine layer of nerve tissue that lines the back of our eyes — detect the blue, green, and red in an image. The cones and your brain mix those colors to make other colors” (Source: CNN).

Light Can Affect Color Perception

Light has infinite wavelengths corresponding to different colors. When light enters the eye, it hits the retina where pigments initiate neural connections to a part of the brain called the visual cortex that processes those signals into an image. Actually, though, that first burst of light is comprised of the wavelengths which are lighting the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. The brain involuntarily deciphers what color light is bouncing off an object and it removes that color from the actual color of the object so what you are seeing is the true color.

It is much easier for our eyes to “color correct” when seeing the actual object. Simply seeing a picture of The Dress is far more difficult to decipher for several reasons:

  • Perceived color in a photo may be more heavily influenced by the background color more than the actual color of the object.
  • Our perception of color may also depend on what area of The Dress we are looking at. The dress can appear white in certain areas and blue in others.
  • A quick glance at The Dress may not allow the eyes to account for shadows, ambient light and background variation.

Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College concludes that the colors you see are the colors on which your brain decides to focus: “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black” (Source: Wired).