A Colorful Conundrum
The Truth About the Purple, Green, and Gold of Mardi Gras
Apparently, 99.9% of New Orleans is wrong about the origin of Mardi Gras colors. Yes, they’re purple, green and gold. And in 1892, the Rex parade theme "Symbolism of Colors" gave meaning to these colors. Purple Represents Justice. Green Represents Faith. Gold Represents Power. There’s no denying that.
Since we were kids, drinking weak café au lait on our grandmere’s knees, we’ve been taught that Rex selected the official Mardi Gras colors in 1872 to honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff.
Then while researching a book for the 125th anniversary of the Rex organization, famous local historian Errol Flynn Laborde discovered the truth behind these colors. Trust us, it’s too complicated to explain to your friends, especially if you’re watching parades with Bloody Mary’s in hand. So here’s an abbreviated version of why everything from polo shirts and headbands to donuts and king cakes are purple, green and gold this time of year. And why one beloved store that "ain’t dere no more" – K&B – was famous for its purple everything, including cash registers.
The Truth According to Laborde
But let’s get back to the truth. Laborde verifies that the colors of Mardi Gras can be traced to the first Rex parade in 1872. He cites newspapers of the day that included a proclamation from the King of the Carnival deigning that balconies should be draped in purple, green and gold. Unfortunately, the King of Carnival never said why, and, apparently, reporters of the day failed to follow up on the omission.
So we have a colorful conundrum on our hands. While doing research for his book, Laborde and his team took a step back and asked the question, “Why are there three colors for Mardi Gras – why not just one or two?” They came to the conclusion that the Rex founders believed “a king must have a kingdom and a kingdom must have a flag” –and because the United States, Great Britain and France had tricolors flags, so should the flag that flew over Carnival.
Still, why purple, green and gold? The choice of a royal purple seemed obvious. Then, according to “heraldry,” you need both “metals” and “colors.” When it came to metals, gold also seemed obvious for a king. Then, also according to rules that determine coat of arms, there are only five acceptable color choices: Red, blue, purple, green and black. Laborde believes that the final choice came down to purple, gold and green or purple, gold and black. Again, green must have been the obvious pick.
So what do you say when someone asks you what is the meaning of the colors? We recommend you say, “It’s complicated. Have another Bloody Mary.”
BONUS: According to legend, Mardi Gras colors influenced the choice of school colors for archrivals Louisiana State University and Tulane University. They say when LSU was deciding on its colors, the shops in New Orleans had stocked up on purple, green, and gold for the Mardi Gras season. LSU decided upon purple and gold, and bought much of it. Tulane bought much of the only remaining color – green.
Remember: Wear the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold during Carnival whenever you're not in costume. You’ll get more beads – and that’s a fact no one can deny!