Hue and Cry

The Devil With a Blue (Or White) Dress

A seemingly simple photo of an apparently blue-and-black dress has stumped millions of netizens over what color the garment is. So what hues do you see?

02.27.15 7:30 AM ET

For some, it’s mildly amusing. For others, it breeds crippling existential dread.

But one thing is certain: The dress is most definitely white and gold. Right?

Well, maybe not.

An innocuous photo of a dress posted to Tumblr on Wednesday has created an astonishing ado. A blogger with the moniker Swiked had modest but urgent hopes: settling a debate between friends.

“Guys, please help me,” she pleaded. “Is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the fuck out.”

Swiked’s problem went unsolved. Instead, she passed her confusion on to tens of millions of others, creating a digital din that engulfed the Web. The debate rolled off Tumblr and into comment sections, Twitter streams and headlines. It usurped the week’s other dress story, which involved a $150,000 Oscar-gown heist. It baffled Taylor Swift, it nabbed above-the-fold treatment on countless news sites, and it generated incalculable Reddit threads.

Worsening the situation was the timing. The debate seemed to reach a fever pitch late Thursday, when the proper authorities—ophthalmologists? neurologists? philosophers?—had called it a day.

Frantic journalists were likely met with voicemails and unreturned emails, their sources retired from their desks. The result was conjecture, conspiracy, and unsated curiosity.

A lucky few reporters did connect with experts. Buzzfeed—perhaps most responsible for making the photo go viral—spoke with Cedar Riener, a professor of psychology. The illusion is a result of our brains trying to decipher both how well-lit the object is, and how the object is reflecting light, Riener told Science Editor Virginia Hughes.    

The debate may peter out before the weekend, but one demographic is likely to have an exceptionally busy Friday: the nation’s ophthalmologists, their voicemails and inboxes brimming with missives inquiring, “Time for a quick interview?”

Today, The Daily Beast spoke with Eduardo Mendieta, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York.

“There are many reasons why different individuals may disagree about what they are seeing,” he explained. “There could be simple technical reasons, having to do with the screens on which they are viewing something. It could be the light in the room, or whether they are looking at the images during the night or the day. It could also be physiological—different people see different colors differently—and it could also be pathological, in the sense that some people do not perceive certain colors.”

“Color is in the eye of the beholder, in many more ways than we generally are aware of,” he added.

Mendieta said the controversy has a philosophical tint, too. “There is a reference here—though tremendously hyperbolic and out of proportion—to one of the oldest problems of philosophy, namely on the relationship between perception and knowledge,” he said.

But the idea of a Tumblr post becoming philosophical canon or fodder for classroom discussion doesn’t sit right with Mendieta. Instead, he’d prefer to let the luminaries—Goethe, or Wittgenstein—provide the material.

“The color of a dress on a screen… is not a good way to get at the problem of color,” Mendieta said. “Here we are descending deeper into Plato’s cave, in which we are only perceiving shadows of shadows of shadows.”