Why The Dress Matters

Sick of the “what color is this dress” debate? Too bad: It’s raising age-old questions about how we construct reality.

By Sydette Harry


The dress is blue. Wired says so, the woman who posted it says so. It’s blue. But the color of the dress is also the least interesting thing about the whole phenomenon. What’s interesting is what the Dress Wars tell us about how we seek social consensus in order to understand the world.

The battle of the blue dress started with a picture on Tumblr. Depending on your monitor, the lighting, which picture you saw and how your eyes work, you saw the dress as black and blue or white and gold (or, like one friend I love but am slightly worried about, tan). White-and-golders and #teamblueandblack took to social media to declaim about how they were right and everyone else’s eyes were broken. This disagreement called up a host of fundamental questions: How important is it for you to be “right” ? How necessary is it for you to have your opinions ratified by those around you? How hard will you go to have that affirmation? In general, and especially now that social media lets us document every thought, it’s not enough for us to have opinions — we also want them affirmed. The blue dress is an organic remix of this psychological phenomenon on a massive scale, and while the science behind the perception difference has been answered, the questions around why it makes us so angry are just as involved.

Epistemology, a primary area of philosophy, concerns how we know what we know. Our interactions in the world and as a society are based on the ability to accept common ground on certain basic truths, or at least convey our disagreement as relative. We may not be seeing the same thing but we know what that red sign means, so we stop and don’t kill each other. The Dress and its chimerical coloring seems to have made these philosophers’ questions, of how we know what we know and how to talk about it, a battle for our timelines. If you see gold and I see blue, how do we know which of us is incorrect? If I am concerned enough to convince you, how exactly do I go about giving evidence, when what you’re seeing is so fundamentally different from what I see?

Even more important than the actual answer is the agreement. In the early 50s, social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that many of his college-age subjects would give a clearly wrong answer to a perception test if everyone else in the room answered wrong — even with very real information, participants would conform to the group rather than diverge. Sixty years later, even though your entire life can now be personalized from your morning coffee to your Google ads to the exact color of your license plate, that drive to be in step with those around you hasn’t changed. While personalization has encouraged more diversity and personal expression than the 50’s, seeing so many people passionately disagree about something so basic as color makes you wonder about their sanity, or yours.

Luckily, social media lets us avoid this philosophical vertigo by curating our own consensus groups. Rather than being isolated by our deviation from the norm,with a little bit of work we can find people to agree with us, even in our most outlandish flights of fancy. You don’t have to accept that everyone around you sees gold; you can text your mom, ask your timeline, and throw it up on your wall. Someone somewhere will see what you see and commiserate with you over the utter wrongness of your nearest and dearest. Conformity is now hand-picked. You can find the people who support your version of reality, and use them to battle the people who don’t. You don’t have to wonder whether you are right or wrong; you just have to find the people or the evidence that agrees with you.

This access to affirmation and dissent can be disconcerting; many people who saw the dress expressed dismay at not seeing what those around them saw. We believe that with all of our access to information, concrete evidence will appear that we are right and the people who don’t agree with us are just wrong. People have always expected vindication; in the age of the internet, we expect it quickly. We assume that someone will immediately step up and discover is the fix.

Except there is no fix needed. Taylor Swift needn’t be frightened or confused. Dressgate is just a new piece of evidence in our classic modes of interaction and connection. Having our perceptions verified and affirmed — or argued — is a necessary part of our need to interact, and unlike politics, race, or gender, the ramifications of a cocktail dress aren’t that high-stakes. Battle Dress let us play out fundamental issues of epistemology and conformity in a sort of puppet battle, and that can be comforting and cathartic. In a world where disagreements span the globe in minutes with the force of a sonic boom around issues often concerned with actual life and death arguing passionately about a dress is a nice break we aren’t often afforded. We can develop our arguments and research with out finding out that our important beliefs are irreconcilably different from our loved ones. We can flail and exclaim, make Vines and illustrations, shout about how everyone else is wrong, and know that at the end of it, no one will get hurt. We actually saw different things, and we just want to know that our friends agree with us — and we like the exercise of working it out around a topic of relative safety.

The question is really “how do we create reality in collaboration with the people around us?” — not “what color is the dress?” The latter has a simple answer: It’s blue. But every now and again, it’s nice to talk about serious questions through a topic that’s anything but.