What Can Christians Learn from the “Mystery Dress” Phenomenon?

By Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Dress1By now, almost everyone with Internet access has heard about “the dress.”

It was just an ordinary off-the-rack dress, purchased by the mother of a bride in Scotland to wear at her daughter’s wedding. Eager to show the dress to her daughter, she sent her a photo.  But when the daughter and her fiancé looked at the photo,  they were surprised to find each of them saw the dress in different colors:  one saw it as white with gold trim and the other as blue with black trim. How could this be?  The couple sent a picture of the dress to friends on Facebook and asked how they saw the color of the dress.

Then, on Thursday evening, February 26, 2015, one of the bride’s friends posted a picture of the dress on Tumblr, which then spread to Buzzfeed.  Twitter and other social networking sites joined in, as did older forms of mass media, keeping the momentum going all through the night.

Soon people all over the connected world were divided over  the color of the dress. Throughout that Friday, millions were joining in to voice their views . There was the blue-and-black team on one side and the white-and-gold team on the other.  Some disagreements were intense, even combative.  According to some reports, disputes over the dress color even caused some relationships to break up. “This dress is tearing our family apart,” the daughter of a Salon writer lamented.

People called it “the mystery dress” and described the whole phenomenon as “dressgate.” The New York Times called it the “dress that melted the Internet.”  The fashion director of the small UK company that makes this line of dresses was as surprised as anyone else.  She reported that sales for the dress had more than tripled the day after the social media posts.  There was no evidence this was a publicity stunt, although the company later used it for a good cause when, in March, it created a special version of the dress to auction off for a British charity.  In Australia, the Salvation Army featured the dress in an ad calling attention to the plight of abused women.

This explosion of interest and debate could have been just another example of a short-lived web sensation.  But something more seemed to be happening. How could so many people look at the same thing and see it in either of two ways?

The Rush to Find Explanations

Ophthalmologists, neuroscientists,  psychologists, and other scientists were asked to explain the phenomenon, and scientific theories and explanations multiplied. (Take time to watch this entertaining explanation in a 2-minute video.)

Much of the talk centered around how we perceive color, with many scientists pointing out that  perception involves what our brains do with information provided by our eyes.  A headline in the science section of the PBS NewsHour website went so far as to announce that “color doesn’t exist.” It’s all about perception. Scientists interviewed for that article said color results from constantly occurring complex brain computations that we’re not even aware of.  Thus, people looking at the same thing can perceive its colors differently.

Seeing different things in a picture is not just about color. Optical illusions of all kinds show how we can view something differently from someone else—or even how we ourselves may see it at different times.

Isn’t All This Attention to “Dressgate” a Silly Waste of Time?

As news of the dress enigma proliferated, some critics scoffed at all the attention it was siphoning from more important matters.  With so much turmoil and suffering going on around the globe, wasn’t it foolish to make so much fuss over a dress?

No, says Dr. Pascal Wallisch,  a research scientist at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. “While it is true that the world faces many pressing problems, discussing the dress is not frivolous.”  Why?  Because “it’s not about the dress – it’s about visual perception and human cognition.”

He considers this to be the first time that “a powerful stimulus display has been brought to the attention of science by social media,” and he considers this highly significant.  “Surely, many people have taken overexposed pictures of fabric (the fabric might matter, too) in poor lighting conditions before,” he points out.  “But without social media to amplify the disagreement (social media seems to be best at that), it would have ended there.”

Instead,  millions of people worldwide were engaging together in a lively (and sometimes heated) discussion on an important scientific topic: vision and how and why we perceive colors as we do.

“So yes,” Wallisch concludes, well aware of the serious problems we face in these times, “ISIS is an obvious concern. But that doesn’t mean ‘the dress’ is trivial. It is not. As a matter of fact,” he goes on, “I would argue that this could not be more topical. If we can’t agree about the color of a dress, how can we hope for world peace? How can we foster tolerance if we don’t allow for and don’t understand that other people can sincerely see the world differently from us?”

Understanding the Anxieties Awakened through “Dressgate”

It was Wallisch’s last point that had similarly struck me immediately  upon learning of the dress controversy that Friday morning in February.  I wondered if it might have some important lessons for us.

Awareness of differences. The mystery dress jolted many people into realizing that their view is not the only view, that different people can honestly differ in how they see things. This is the most obvious lesson;  yet it may be the hardest to accept.  If we hear someone say,  “I just can’t see this the way you do,” it probably doesn’t occur to us that what they’re saying might be literally true!  That was one of the lessons of the dress. We’d rather believe that someone’s inability to see what we see is a deliberate closing of their eyes and minds.  Each side may be quick to assume the other is stubborn, biased, or just plain wrong. (“No way!” was a common exclamation among people finding that another person looking at the same picture on the same screen claimed to see the dress in a different color.)

Confusion, cognitive dissonance, and controversy. For many people, what happened next in “dressgate” is what often occurs when people look at the same thing and see it in different ways. It can set up inner turmoil,  a sense of uncertainty, a feeling that something is off-balance.  How can we trust our own eyes if somebody we care about— somebody we thought we knew very well and assumed shared the same outlook as ours— now looks at the same thing and sees it in a different way? What then?

Determined to hang on to our certainty about what we see, we may not only dispute what the other person reports seeing, but we may begin changing our view of the person who is doing the seeing!  We had always thought we were on the same page.  Now we find that isn’t true!

We’re experiencing what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It’s as though two musical notes are clashing in discord, spoiling the harmony.  People react to such dissonance in different ways, seeking to resolve the discomfort the dissonance brings.  Here are two such ways that I’ll illustrate from experiences in my own life.

Two Different Reactions

Approach number 1:  “I reject your view, and with it, you!”  During the 1960s and early 1970s, when I was an active part of the evangelicalism of that time, the vast majority of evangelicals were convinced the Bible clearly taught male headship and female subordination for all times and places. Because my own study of scripture, theology, history, and personal experience led me to look at these teachings in a different light, I began questioning that view.  I wrote articles (and later a book) emphasizing the equality of women and men in the home, church, and society.

One day, I received a letter from a young woman who said she had considered me her role model from when she had been a 12-year-old camper at an evangelical camp  where I was her counselor. We occasionally corresponded over the years after that.  She now wanted to let me know she had followed my other Christian writings all through high school and college and had looked up to me as an example of what a Christian woman should be.  She had even written a paper about it. Now, as a pastor’s wife, she had expected to keep seeing me in that way.  But, in a tone of disappointment more than anger, she was writing to tell me I was no longer her role model; my feminist views had destroyed her image of me and she could no longer see me as an example or mentor.  She and her husband decided to discontinue the friendship because, in their eyes, my views on gender equality were unbiblical.  They were not open to further discussion.  They rejected both my view and me.

Approach number 2: “I’ll listen and learn, and then discern”  In this next example, I was the one who found it necessary to adjust my way of looking at something that I had not previously questioned or even thought about.  At the time, I was one of our church’s leaders for a college age discussion group. One Sunday, a visiting speaker told the group about her ministries to various categories of people in a large city. Chief among these ministries, at the time, was meeting with gay men and lesbians.  It was 1964, long before the more inclusive term, “LGBTQ” was used. (In fact, it was from this woman’s talk that day that I first heard the word, “gay.”)

This was a time in U.S. history when psychologists and psychiatrists considered homosexuality a mental illness, sociologists spoke of it as deviance,  the legal profession and state laws classified it as a crime, and most Christians considered it a sin. The speaker for the college group was no different on this last point, but she had a more humane approach, saw homosexual persons as human beings deserving of God’s love and our love,  and not as an abstract idea or a class of people to be avoided.  She said she was reaching out to them through taking the gospel message to gay bars.  But, as an evangelical Christian, she held the traditional “biblical” view  and believed gay men and lesbians could be helped to move away from their same-sex sexual expression. The idea of sexual orientation was not yet widely considered,  although scientists in various fields were beginning to explore it.

After the speaker left to return to her home state, she and I became  pen pals, having met in person only that one time. (This was several decades before email became widely used.)  In our  letters, delivered by the postal service every few months over the next ten or so years,  we talked about all sorts of matters relating to the Christian life and Christian service.  We talked about prayer, our personal Bible study, reading C.S. Lewis and other books, her ministry of evangelism and student work, her work with persons with addictions, my ministry of writing, as well as other topics, including  Christianity and homosexuality.

One day in 1969, I suggested that since the topic of homosexuality was becoming increasingly talked about in the news, maybe she should consider writing some articles about the topic from her Christian perspective.  She sent back a postcard and said yes, she had thought about writing sometimes and, in fact, had a stack of letters from Christian magazine editors asking for articles. But she surprised me by saying that if she wrote even a fraction of what she “really thought about the topic and the people involved,” these magazines would never print it. She said she had met some of the most dedicated, mature Christians she had ever known, and they were living in same-sex relationships. “What’s more,” she said,  “several have both the fruits and the gifts of the Spirit in great abundance.”

I wanted to know more about how, when, and why she had changed her perspective on this topic.  I didn’t want to argue with her but rather to listen and learn and eventually discern what I believed God might want to show me and then develop my own way of looking at the topic.  While I listened and learned, I did not hesitate to disagree with her and challenge her.  She was listening and learning from me as well, as she saw the reasoning process behind my continuing to hold on to the traditional view. Quite likely she had gone through similar ways of wrestling with such ideas when she, too, had begun seeing through a different lens.

She never insisted I change my views, nor did I insist she change hers. I didn’t consider her a “heretic” for leaving the traditional evangelical view; she didn’t consider me a “bigot” for holding on to it. As we continued these exchanges off and on over the next three years. I would refer to my understanding of Scripture, theology, and natural law, and she would write back, point to holes in some of my arguments, tell me about new biblical scholarship she had learned was taking place, and would insist that homosexuality was not about sex but about love.

At the same time, I was gathering information on my own through popular media (some talk shows were beginning to talk about the topic by then) and by studying research findings from the Kinsey Institute and other social science studies,  including reading about Evelyn Hooker’s pioneering work.  Yet, I was not sure how everything  I was learning  through science would fit with my sincerely held traditional biblical interpretation and evangelical faith. So I tried to compartmentalize both my scholarly endeavors and my evangelical beliefs and kept them separate while I tried to sort it all through.  All the while,  my correspondent and I were sharpening  the thinking of each other in the manner of Proverbs 27:17—“Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other” (CEV). It was a dialogue, not an angry debate.

One day in 1972, during one of our discussions by mail, I had an “aha” moment. It occurred to me that she and I were thinking of sexual morality as if it could be defined in two very different and separate paradigms  rather than a single all-inclusive definition that applied to all people and was not dependent on sexual orientation!  I typed up a chart and put it in my next letter and asked if it illustrated what she had hoped I would see.  It was, and it marked the beginning of a major paradigm shift for me.

A few years later,  I expanded that nascent paradigm idea into a longer chart for inclusion in the book I coauthored with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? ( first edition published in 1978). Although  by then my long-time correspondent had moved overseas and we had lost track of each other, I was able to trace her down to send her a copy of Virginia’s and my book.  I inscribed it with a note telling her she “had opened my eyes to a different way of looking at the subject.”

There it was again— that “new way of seeing” metaphor!  It was like looking at one of those optical illusions and suddenly seeing another picture that was hidden within the first view after which you’re never able to see it the old way again.

When People See Things Differently

Ideally, it would be best if we could always use the “listen, learn, and then discern’ approach when someone else’s view differs from our own. We need to be slow to make judgments and accusations. Our patience may be rewarded. Instead of  being in a hurry to tell them why we think they’re wrong, we can say, “Tell me more about why you see this as you do.” Both parties are likely to benefit.

On the other hand, if we get upset and angry because their perspective differs from ours, we may need to ask ourselves, “Why do I feel as I do?” Could it be a matter of our own ego being so wrapped up in our particular view that we consider ourselves to be under attack when it’s our view that is being challenged?   That it’s all about us and not about our view?

Such thinking is why people often slip into the “I reject your view, and with it, you” approach. Thus, conflicts break out and escalate —conflicts that might have been avoided by trying to understand why people’s perspectives and perceptions differ. We might be surprised to find they (or we) are more open to rethinking something than either of us ever thought possible, even though it may take a long time.

(I need to stress here that I am talking about one-on-one conversations with people with whom we have a relationship—friend, family member or other acquaintance with whom we form some kind of connection and who is open to such an honest conversation — not someone whose mind is bolted shut.  For deadbolt-locked minds to display openness to another view can mean a loss of political or religion-based power, money, and prestige in their particular group.  Such a person may care only about  provocation, self-aggrandizement , and browbeating others through intimidation.)

What the Dress Color Meme Can Teach Us about Different Perceptions and Perspectives

It’s  helpful to understand some reasons that people may seem so wedded to their own perspective. Going back to the colors of the “mystery dress,”  scientists who looked for reasons for the different perceptions pointed to a number of factors: (a) the lighting that is perceived —including shadows, and how an individual’s eyes adjust to the time of day, (b) the two different ways the dress appeared in relation to the photo’s background, and (c) slight variations among individuals in the physical structure of their eyes, specifically the photoreceptor cells (rods and cones).

It’s possible to think of these same factors (light, background, and the unique composition of an individual) in a figurative sense, as well.  We can apply them to understanding some differences among people in their thinking and discourse on social, political, and religious issues.  Here are some factors to keep in mind when we’re discussing sensitive topics.

•  What do I know about the background against which this person sees this particular issue? Very conservative? Or very progressive?  Or somewhere in between?  Religious, or indifferent, or anti-religion?  Coming from a dogmatic, judgmental church or home, and a view of God as angry and punishing;  or coming from a home or church that stressed love, compassion, and empathy toward others? How does this person view and interpret the Bible?  Whatever we bring to a topic from our own background is likely to affect how we first see a subject.

•  What do I know about the “time of day” —metaphorically, the emotional and intellectual “stage of life”— in which this person is viewing or has viewed this issue?  Has there ever been a time of openness to change, and is there such openness now? What brought about the change (in either direction) in how the person has looked at this issue?

•  What do I know about what defines or makes up this individual’s personality or disposition—what the person brings to the conversation in a unique or particular way, like the variations in photoreceptor cells in some individuals’ eyes?   Is he or she fearful, anxious about  taking risks, worried about  the opinions of others? Does this person tend to be optimistic or pessimistic? Is this person quick to anger when challenged?

•  What do I know about the light and shadows in which this person may view this issue? Where is the light perceived to be coming from? What may be blocking it? 

Perception and Reality

Among all the online comments people were making about the dress color, someone pointed out that if only we could all be in the same room, we would be able to see the actual dress—not just the image of it that we were seeing on our various electronic devices.  So true.  There was a reality behind and beyond the image. Had we attended the wedding, we would have seen the bride’s mother in her blue and black dress.

But in this very divided world today, it’s clear that, figuratively speaking, we are not all “in the same room.” It is equally clear that even those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus and “one in Christ” are not in the same room either when it comes to our perceptions— as well as the words and actions that are fueled by those perceptions. Thus we hurt each other in the process of making our points.

The apostle Paul said that in this present time, there is so much we don’t know, so much we can’t see, a reality we can’t fully comprehend. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love”  (1 Corinthians 13:12-13, NRSV).

Beyond our perceptions, we can know this certainty:  “God is love” and “God is light” (1 John 4:16; 1 John 1:5). And light is made up of all the colors of the rainbow.

May we make it our goal to walk in that light— the light of love— realizing as the psalmist did, that it is in God’s light that we see light (Ps. 36:9).


© 2015 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Christian Feminism Today

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


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