Best of the Decade: How The Dress showed us the power of memes
To celebrate the end of the 2010s, Entertainment Weekly’s Must List is looking back at the best pop culture that changed pop culture in movies, TV, music, and more. Catch up on our list so far, which includes the MCU’s big Snap and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s history-making hit. Here we dive into how one (blue and black?) dress broke the internet.
The 2010s provided memes for every pocket of the internet, from yee-yee-juice-drunk TikTok teens giddying “Old Town Road” up the charts to policy wonks on Twitter trying to find meaning in “covfefe.” If we all found cross-platform unity though, it was through one low-res image of an inexplicably-hued dress. The color… well, don’t get us started.
“I don’t think we’ve seen that singularity of virality in the same way either before or since,” says Cates Holderness, a former BuzzFeed editor who, in February 2015, was browsing the Ask Box on the company Tumblr where she was tipped off to the now-iconic photo (posted by Scottish musician Caitlin McNeill, a friend of the dress owner’s family). At first, Holderness didn’t think much of what was clearly a blue-and-black dress to her — but when nearby colleagues swore it was white and gold, she published a BuzzFeed poll asking people to settle what colors they saw. The debate all but broke the internet.
Over 20 million shares later, Holderness (who now works at Tumblr) believes memes are now embedded into pop culture because they “make content that you might not be familiar with more approachable,” citing how before the discourse around his hot priest convinced audiences to give Fleabag a try this year, actor Andrew Scott started the decade playing Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock, a show many viewers discovered through viral Tumblr gifsets.
“When there’s a new meme that comes out, or a new format, or a new reaction GIF, you want to find out what the source material is,” Holderness explains. “You want to learn more about it. You want to see more of the iterations of it because you want to be a part of that discussion online. And you want to feel like you’re a part of that community as well.”
She ascribes the dress phenomenon to its rooting in positivity: “It didn’t matter how old you are — you could’ve been 80 or you could’ve been 5 — and you could still look at this picture and have an opinion on it.”
Just remember: Everyone is entitled to be loud and wrong.