2015’s #TheDress turns bitter in 2016

  • By Maxime Philippe

The couple behind the optical illusion that was #TheDress claim that they were completely left out of the process


“The Dress’ was possibly the most viral image of 2015 so why do the couple who took the picture, Paul Jinks and Cecilia Bleasdale, now have mixed feelings about their wildly popular photo?

As you will probably remember, overnight on the 26th February 2015, tens of millions of people had begun to discuss the colour of a dress, when seen in one, very particular online picture, it seemed to have almost magical qualities.

Some saw it as blue and black, others as white and gold. And there seemed to be no convincing the other camp that they were mistaken.
We legally can not reproduce that image here, because, for reasons that will be revealed, that picture is now in a legal dispute.

It was argued that #TheDress and the different ways we see it have profound implications for science. However there is also a largely untold story about the way the internet works, what goes viral, and who gets left out in the process.

How the picture came to be:

Cecilia Bleasdale, a social worker, and her partner Paul Jinks, live in Lancashire. As 2015 began, Bleasdale’s daughter was soon to be married, so the mother of the bride was in need of something to wear to the wedding.

“So we thought right, let’s go dress shopping,” recalls Paul.

In one particular store, they came across three dresses Bleasdale liked. “I asked a shop assistant would it be okay if I took some photographs of these three outfits to send to my daughter,” she recalls. “And the third photograph that I sent was the one of the infamous dress.”

The dress was blue and black, so Bleasdale was surprised when her daughter texted the following back: “That’s lovely mum. The gold and white one.” To confuse matters further, Jinks, who was in the shop with her and had seen the original dress, also saw the picture as white and gold.

The actual colours of #TheDress were finally settled on the day of the wedding, when Bleasdale wore it. Everyone could see for themselves that the dress was black and blue. But that’s real life. The internet is somewhat more complicated and misleading.

Bleasdale didn’t know it, but her daughter had shared that magic picture of the dress on Facebook. And one of her Facebook friends, the singer in the wedding band, was so fascinated that she then posted it on Tumblr. This wasn’t exactly an organic hit, it only really spread after the website Buzzfeed noticed the Tumblr post and wrote their own story, with the picture included, attracting some 39 million views.

The science behind #TheDress:

Barry Smith, a director of the Institute of Philosophy of the University in London, told BBC Trending that when it comes to optical illusions, “there has been nothing quite like this.”
Most visual illusions, like the one below, can be seen both ways by the same person.


the jaw of the young woman, becomes the nose of the old lady

This is where #TheDress is different. “Instead we seem to find out that there was a very definite split in the population,” says Smith. “Some people looked and it was white and gold, others looked and the dress was blue and black. How could it be that people with normal vision could divide into either of these two camps?”

The answer to that is the idea of colour constancy, an effect whereby the brain is able to keep colours in the environment looking the same, even if the lights illuminating the environment change. “If you imagine your eyes and brain are like a camera, it might set to the setting of outdoor and then it processes the visual information in one way, or it might be set to indoor and then it processes information in a different way,” explains Marie Rogers, who researches cognition and colour perception at the University of Sussex.

The key to the secret is the burst of blue light that appears at the back of Cecilia Bleasdale’s picture. It had the effect of making the dress, which is definitely blue and black in real life, appear white and gold to some people. It is the background lighting that made some brains, but not others, mentally adjust the colours they see on the dress in front.
Within just hours of the Buzzfeed story appearing, Bleasdale’s photo had spread around the world, and got scientists and philosophers talking. But for the couple themselves there’s a melancholy side to the memory.

“Well, we were completely left out from the story,” said Paul Jinks. “It all happened so fast,” adds Cecilia Bleasdale, “we had no control.”

The couple have now hired a solicitor and are considering taking legal action to protect their copyright in the picture.

“You saw all the companies using the blue and black and white and gold to sell their products and nobody wanted to miss out,” she recalls. Paul adds more bitterly: “Basically they’ve taken our property and profited off it without even giving us a credit, a thank you, nothing.”

The couple appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres programme in the US, but have done few UK interviews.

“Part of me thinks, ‘oh you know it’ll always be a conversation piece for years and years after I’m gone,'” she says. “It would have been nice to have a bit more control, but it’s easy enough to say that with hindsight.”

Buzzfeed say that a reader submitted the photo and that they “take the rights of intellectual property owners very seriously, and if there is any inadvertent issue or misuse, we will work swiftly to correct that.”

Paul and Cecilia’s image was remarkable and unique. Perhaps if they themselves had just posted it online on a small personal site, it might still have become famous.

But next time you see it, it might colour your perception to know that the people who brought #TheDress to public attention feel pretty mixed about its impact on their lives.

Paul and Cecilia have come under criticism from around the world with some noting that the dress itself, and the website that published an image freely available on the internet with no attached copyrights what so ever, are acting out of line in a bitter and sad attempt to capitalise from not actually doing anything.