What colour is that dress???
Colour lesson 101: colour is relative.
Whether I’m conducting a personal colour analysis or talking to groups about how colour works, this is the first thing I like to emphasise.
And this is absolutely why there was so much debate about whether the dress chosen by Scottish mother of the bride, Cecilia Bleasdale, was gold and white or black and blue.
In fact the debate was not really over the colours of the dress she wore, but what colours the dress appeared in the photo she sent her daughter. It would have been hard to miss this story in the media as it went completely viral, but in case you did: Cecelia’s daughter saw the dress as white and gold while her fiancé swore it was blue and black. Millions of other people had very strong opinions of their own.
So why the debate? Well, colour is relative. The same colour can look completely different in different contexts. Place an aqua logo next to a fresh green and you’d say the logo was blue. Next to a true-blue you’d say it was green.
Our perception of colour is also affected by texture. For example, dark colours can look lighter if they’re in shiny reflective fabrics rather than matte. Chunky or coarse matte fabrics make a light colour appear less light.
This doesn’t explain the white/gold or blue/black dress, however. In this case it’s more to do with lighting. Once upon a time before everyone had digital cameras in their phones effort was spent to achieve what’s known as correct ‘white balance’. In film we’d shoot something we knew to be white, ensure the camera registered it as white, and that would become the benchmark for all other colours.
These days we point and shoot, expecting the colours to record accurately. And often they do, or at least we can interpret them in a way that makes sense. But in this particular example the background didn’t offer us a clear reference point so the brain had to do some inaccurate interpreting with no context.
Our eyes are actually notoriously unreliable and we depend on our brain to interpret what we see more than we realise. Our brains search for visual clues such as familiar objects, lighting conditions or something we subconsciously expect to see to help us out, but in the shot of the dress we found nothing to use as a reference point.
Generally, brains are very good at discounting a warm/gold/day bias or a cool/black/night bias in lighting to inform us of the true colours we’re seeing and automatically alter the details based on our experience (think of recognising familiar things at dusk versus at noon). But without any context, our brains can become tricked.
In the case of the much-discussed dress, our brains had some balancing to do between the luminance and colour of the dress. We couldn’t tell if it the dress was white and gold with a blue shadow over it or blue and black in a yellow light.
One theory is that our colour perception is based on the part of the dress our eyes prioritised first – the gold/black lace or the white/blue background. This theory says those who first zoomed in on the lace (me!) saw it as gold with a white background and those who saw the background first interpreted it as blue with black lace. This would be an interesting experiment to conduct!
Alternatively if you have a decent printer, print the dress and cut it into pieces. Place the pieces next to a range of other colours and textures and you’ll see how colour truly is relatively its surroundings. There are all kinds of fun optical illusions we can play with colour – and this is one good reason to have a colour analysis!
Interestingly, most people saw the dress as white/gold, including the bride to be who posted the photo initially as she was concerned her mum was considering a white dress as mother of the bride. In fact, the dress is blue/black.