Sometimes an image tidily sums up the magnitude of a moment, preserving it for posterity and future study like a Jurassic Park mosquito trapped in amber.
It could be the look of concern on a translator’s face at a Trump press conference, the look of revulsion on every woman’s face during Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearing (even if these particular women were revolted on his behalf), or the look of resolve on an activist’s face as Joe Biden points his finger inches away from it.
These perfectly timed visuals capture each moment and communicate different ideas about the greater era they reside in. But could any one image succinctly distill this entire decade?
As 2019 winds down, Fast Company parsed the totality of the 2010s in search of one representative still.
Is it perhaps the image of Donald Trump glowering during Barack Obama’s speech at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the then-president making fun of the then-game show host for spreading a racist conspiracy about him? (It is widely rumored that this moment, which occurred just after Obama secretly approved the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, inspired Trump to run for president.)
Or is the defining photo of the decade the infamous Oscar selfie, a moment in 2014 that marked our obsession with celebrity, our absorption with the then-recently coined word “selfie” (and the self-absorption it implies), along with the idea that predatory men (like Kevin Spacey) lurk at the highest levels of the entertainment industry?
Worthy contenders, to be sure, but only one image could adequately synthesize all the major themes of the 2010s—and that of course is The Dress.
Why The Dress? For starters, you know exactly what I’m talking about when I say “The Dress.” That visual and that moment achieved such instant and lasting notoriety, it has earned the right to be preceded only by an article, like The Pill.
Back in February of 2015, a woman in Scotland posted an image of a dress on Tumblr, asking her followers: What color is this dress? Depending on the eye of the beholder, the frock appeared either white and gold, or blue and black. Someone submitted a query about the chameleonic garment to the “Ask” box on BuzzFeed’s Tumblr, where community growth manager Cates Holderness (who now works for Tumblr) saw its potential for the main feed. Within hours of Holderness converting the dress into BuzzFeed content in the form of a quiz, it became The Dress.
Chaos reigned. Every social media site was rife with arguments and every traditional media outlet—the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post, all of them—started prepping Dress-based pieces for the next day.
In one week, the original Tumblr post racked up 73 million page views, and the BuzzFeed quiz took in 41.6 million page views. BuzzFeed then spent the rest of the decade trying to manufacture similar moments, be it with exploding watermelons or the Yanny vs. Laurel debate, but it never could quite rekindle the organic viral magic of The Dress and the hurricane of engagement around it.
Years before that initial moment came the Balloon Boy Hoax of October 2009, which presaged how the next decade would become a contest for people hell-bent on going viral. It would be a decade filled with “Harlem Shake” videos and Ice Bucket Challenges and lots of folks acquiring instant fame in the worst way for exhibiting extremely poor judgment. Other publications besides BuzzFeed actively strived to get viral traffic, too, as did brands. In the middle of all that, The Dress gave everyone a pure moment of true community. It was a sorting hat that showed people who they were (Team White and Gold or Team Blue and Black) and made them want to see who else was on their side.
This is where The Dress dons an ominous aura, though.
On that day, two people could look at the same object and see something radically different, a duality that may have cracked open a hole in the floor of the sea and let prehistoric megalodons slip through. Everything that has happened in the back half of the decade, the Trump half if you will, has happened in two separate realities, filtered through two separate perspectives—and both sides couldn’t be more sure that their side represents the truth.
On the day of The Dress, people would half-jokingly talk about it in absolutes. They wouldn’t just say, “To me, The Dress looks blue and black,” they would say, “Who even are these monsters who think it could be white and gold?” That level of certitude has pervaded how we talk about everything now, politically and otherwise. Even when the point of something is its subjectivity—like, say, art, for instance—people tend to put themselves on the right side of the issue, and everyone who disagrees with them on the wrong one.
The Dress remains, nearly five years later, a potent symbol of virality and polarization. It is something everybody saw, disagreed on, and felt very extremely strong about. That’s how everything happens now, from the impeachment hearings to the #MeToo men to Star Wars opinions.
We are more connected than ever, and we couldn’t be further divided.