White + Gold or Blue + Black? | The Color Theory behind the Internet Phenomenon

You may have seen the photo that launched a thousand web browsers. A poorly lit photo of a dress on social media somehow became a hotly debated internet meme overnight. Why did this happen? Some Facebook users saw the dress as blue and black while others saw it as gold and white. What do you think?

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I have not altered the dress in these examples, only the color and brightness of the background.

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White and Gold Dress: The dress appears gold when the scene is white balanced against the blue stripes.

It’s easy to see how the dress appears white and gold in this example. Why? Because the background has a blue filter, causing your brain to think the dress is tinted blue. Little known fact about light, subtracting a color is the same as adding the opposite color. When the brain eliminates blue from the dress, it adds orange which is blue’s opposite on the color wheel. Creating the effect that so many people experience when they say the dress is white and gold. If you have a friend in the white and gold camp, this is how they perceive the photo. They subconsciously assume a bluish tint – the kind you typically get from sunlight (6500K).

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Blue and Black Dress: This photo is white balanced to the gold stripes and lightened to the value of the black stripes.

In this example, the dress looks blue and black. Again, your brain is removing the gold tint from the dress and it’s surroundings by adding the opposite color, blue. The confusion over the photo of the dress comes from the interpretation of the surroundings. They assume the lighting is influenced by cooler daylight (6500K). But, if you look closely at the photo, you can see the ground and clothes rack to the left are warm, or orange, or a warmer incandescent bulbs (3500K). Therefore, the photo’s content has less warmth, adding blue to the dress, making the blue and black view correct.

There is a constant interpreting and reinterpreting the world around you. Anyone who has felt a mosquito land on their wrist, but didn’t constantly feel the clothes they were wearing knows this principle. Unnecessary or irrelevant data is constantly being filtered out without your knowing it. This photo has exploited this principle in such a unique way that some people view the photo in a completely different manner from their friends.

Check out the original photo with swatches from dress’ stripes. There is no white or black, but your brain doesn’t think so. It knows the dress is affected by tinted light and camera filters and reinterprets the color for you. The question is, how will your brain remove the offending data, will it remove the blue or the orange stripes?  Depending on that choice, you and I could see opposite results.

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It’s time to see the world in a different light and settle this polarizing topic (no puns intended).