Dress drama debunked: the explanation behind the blue, black or white, gold dress

Jessie Trudell

We’ve all seen it – the Internet takeover by the mysterious dress that’s blue and black to some but white and gold to others.

“I see it as white and gold,” said Ahmed Fadhlani, freshman mechanical engineering student. “But I’ve seen both variations of color.”


Others disagree.

“It’s blue and black,” said Mimi Hibben, freshman student of broadcasting. “Honestly I think it’s just a really stupid social media stunt.”

Others don’t know what’s going on.

“It’s obviously blue and black,” said Devin Kadillak, freshman student of applied computer sciences. “Wait, it obviously changes colors.”

Others just don’t care.

“I think the dress is hideous,” said Jack Savoie, freshman fashion design student and blogger of The Savoie Daily. “So what’s the point?”

It’s mind-boggling; how can two people look at the exact same image but see such differences regarding something as basic as color? To figure out what’s really going on, I met with Jessica Witt, associate professor of psychology at CSU.

“We’ve never, ever seen an image that causes such discrepant perceptions,” Witt said.

The majority of people vote that the dress is white and gold, according to Internet polls. However, that can’t possibly be accurate. The dress is only available for purchase online in blue and black, white and black, red and black, or pink and black – the dress is not manufactured in white and gold. Therefore, the dress has to be blue and black.

These photos demonstrate how illumination can affect our perception of the color of an object.
These photos demonstrate how illumination can affect our perception of the color of an object.

“The New York Times has put out a wrong theory, saying that it has to do with individual variation in photo receptors in our eyes,” Witt said. “However, if that were true, we would have discovered the impact of these differences a long time ago, meaning that there would be major differences in color perception for more things than just this dress.”


Witt said the differing opinions likely stem from the ambiguity of the photo’s lighting. Natural lighting from the sun has a slightly blue tint to it, while artificial light has a slightly yellow tint.

“Our visual system doesn’t care about the lighting that is hitting our eyes, it cares about the true color of the object,” Witt said. “To register the true color of the object, our brains immediately subtract out the color of the illumination because that could potentially influence the object’s real color.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 6.30.31 PM
This diagram demonstrates the effects that artificial or yellow illumination (left dress) versus the effects of natural or blue illumination on an object (right dress).
This diagram demonstrates that the two dresses actually are the same color within the boxes on the right side of each dress.
This diagram demonstrates that the two dresses actually are the same color within the boxes on the right side of each dress.

Sitting in Professor Witt’s naturally lit office, I was having a little difficulty wrapping my mind around everything she was telling me. What happened to, “I’ve seen it with my very own eyes”?

Witt stood up and asked me to look at her nude-toned skin in the natural light. She asked me if her skin appeared blue, to which I obviously responded no. She then turned on her overhead

fluorescent, flooding the room with artificial light.

“Now, does my skin appear yellow?” Witt asked. “The reason it maintains its color whether in natural or artificial lighting is because your brain naturally eliminates illumination that could interfere with the real color of my skin.”

Essentially, those seeing the dress as white and gold perceive the dress as being photographed in natural lighting. When their brains eliminate the blue tint from the natural light, they are left with white and gold. Those seeing the dress as blue and black likely perceive the dress as being photographed in artificial lighting. When their brains subtract that artificial, yellowish tinted lighting, they are left with a blue and black dress.

“In general, we all think we see the same thing as others,” Witt said. “However, unlike other optical illusions where people tend to have similar experiences, the experiences with the dress are insanely different.”

The process of interpreting color has everything to do with the brain and surprisingly little to do with the eye, according to Witt.

“It doesn’t have to do with the hardware of the eye, it has to do with the processes of the mind,” said Witt. “We don’t see the image on the back of our eye, we see the world.”

Mind. Blown.

Collegian Reporter Jessie Trudell can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @JessieTrudell