Science debate on dress colour riddle goes global

Shop manager Debbie Armstrong adjusts her window display. Picture: AP

Shop manager Debbie Armstrong adjusts her window display. Picture: AP

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IT’S the £50 dress that seems to have sparked frenzied debate and complete bafflement in equal measure.

As celebrities and fashion watchers attempt to grapple with the colour of an outfit worn at a Hebridean wedding, experts have been trying to explain the science of the phenomenon.

There has been a frenzy of conjecture over why to some people the dress, bought by Cecilia Bleasdale for her daughter’s wedding on Colonsay, appears to be gold and white, while to others it shows its true colours – blue and black.

Academics and scientists around the world have been debating theories about how the brain processes colours that would account for the remarkable disparity in the way people see them.

One of the most widely circulated pieces, in science and technology magazine Wired, described the debate as being about “primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see colour in a sunlit world”.

Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, told Wired: “I’ve studied individual differences in colour vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.”

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Meanwhile, David Williams, a vision scientist at the University of Rochester in New York, told the Live Science website: “Your brain is always working behind the scenes to figure out what the true colour of the object is. I think the brain has just made a different assumption about how the dress is being illuminated.”

The internet furore erupted after Bleasdale sent a picture of the dress she planned to wear at the wedding to her daughter Grace, who lives on Colonsay.

After Grace’s friends started disagreeing over the colour of the Roman Originals dress, one of them, wedding singer Caitlin McNeil, posted the picture online in a bid to settle the argument – little realising it would go on to be shared more than 28 million times, with #TheDress becoming the top trending topic on Twitter.

However, Erin Goddard, a cognitive scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney, said there were few clues in the original picture posted online by McNeil on the microblogging site Tumblr, including whether it was in shadow or not.

She told New Scientist: “In addition to making things darker, shadows often ‘change’ the colour of part of a scene. For example, if there’s a sunny scene, the direct sunlight is quite yellow, but areas in shadow are mostly lit by skylight, which is quite blue. Artists know to add blue to shadows to make them more convincing.”

Prof Stephen Westland, chair of colour science and technology at the University of Leeds, said: “If it hadn’t been taken under very strange lighting this probably wouldn’t have happened, because if you look at the manufacturer’s picture, it is indisputably blue and black. One in 12 men are colourblind. But what people don’t know is that even if the rest of us are not colourblind we don’t always see colour in the same way. The surprising thing is that this doesn’t happen more often.”

McNeil is still coming to terms with the reaction to the picture, which went viral as celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift entered the debate.

The 21-year-old said: “It’s just incredible. I can’t comprehend it. People have been messaging me saying that all their favourite celebrities are tweeting about it. I feel like I’m dreaming.

“We’ve been scratching our heads and stressing and arguing for the last two weeks about this dress and I just wanted to know some answers.

“When my friend originally posted this picture on Facebook I thought they were just playing an elaborate prank on me. It took me a very long time to stop thinking that and realise there was something scientifically amiss here.”

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