Black and blue

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(Originally posted on Activating TOK) A week now since I posted “What colour is that dress? Millions disagree”, the story of the dress (black and blue, or white and gold?) continues to echo in the media.  As different groups frame the story of the optical illusion with their own interests and ask their own questions, they create different stories of their own attached to what is currently a common reference point. Does placing the dress in different contexts affect, do you think, how you “see” it?  I’ll pick out just two striking uses of the dress, both of them seizing on it to make points irrelevant to its optical qualities – but in the process moving into extended TOK territory!

The first asks, “Who made the dress? Under what labour conditions?” The writer reports that Roman Originals, the dress manufacturer, was exposed in 2007 for using child labour in sweat shops in India. However, saying it hadn’t been aware, the company says it immediately cancelled its contract with that supplier and reinforced the ethical terms of contracts they signed. Interestingly, it is planning now not to market a gold and white dress (the original actually having been blue and black) but to make a single white and gold dress — and auction it for charity. Do you find that this added information changes in any way how you “see” the dress or respond to the image?

Salvation Army Black and Blue Dress Advert

A second striking use of the dress is shocking – and meant to be so. The Christian humanitarian organization The Salvation Army demands in a caption to a picture of a model wearing a white and gold dress, “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?” The model is covered with bruises – “black and blue” — and the caption adds, “One in six women are [sic] victims of abuse.”  For background on the campaign, see this Global News video.

Clearly, the article is not concerned with optical illusions. The creative agency that created the ad for the campaign against violence to women freely admits, “”We wanted to take advantage of the hype of the meme to spread awareness for something important.” In punning on “black and blue” (and thereby using amphiboly as a communicative tactic), it shifts the conversation to its own concerns. Nevertheless, the ad campaign still does not leave TOK territory: it treats not what people actually see but what people acknowledge seeing, and, by implication, responsibility for taking action.

Both of these uses of the dress raise related knowledge questions:

  • How does our prior knowledge affect our sense perception – what we see or otherwise gain through our senses, what we notice out of all the sense information that we gather, and how we understand it?
  • How do our concepts of the world and human relationships  affect our sense perception?  How do our perspectives influence both what we notice and what we  acknowledge noticing?
  • Does recognition of injustice bring any ethical responsibility for attempting to oppose it? Why or why not?

Personally, I find the optical illusion dress an entertaining example to take into a TOK class for discussion of sense perception, as I commented last week. However, I find it even more interesting this week with an extension of knowledge questions into implications for human rights and justice. The single example of the dress – white and gold, or black and blue – becomes fruitful for wider ranging TOK discussion.


James West, “The Company That Made the World’s Most Famous Dress Had a Child Labor Problem in India”, Mother Jones, March 3, 2015.

Avianne Tan, “’The Dress’ Illusion Challenges Violence Against Women in Salvation Army PSA”, ABC News, March 6, 2015.

“Salvation Army using dress debate to highlight abuse”, March 6 2015.

Photo: Salvation Army via Twitter