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How Carnival Got Its Colors
A Revisionist History
Wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated, throughout Louisiana and the nation, the colors are purple, green and gold. We know this about the colors: They originated in New Orleans with the first parade of the Rex organization in 1872.
During the week before that inaugural parade, the local newspapers even carried proclamations issued by the newly created “King of the Carnival” declaring that balconies should be draped in those colors. Less clear is why Rex chose that combination. Through the years there have been many explanations but never one that could be verified.
The most common — and easiest to give — contemporary explanation has been that the colors stand for justice, faith and power respectively, but one might wonder why those qualities were so special to the Rex founders. Why not faith, hope and charity? Or trustworthiness, loyalty and helpfulness?
Not only is there uncertainty about the significance of those three words but also about their association with those colors. There have been many other associations of words to colors that varied considerably. Under Grose’s rules of military antiquities, purple represented fortitude; green, good hope; and yellow, honor. Are fortitude, hope and honor any less virtuous than justice, faith and power? Signs and Symbols of Christian Art has purple, green and gold representing triumph, power and pure light respectively. The meanings are clearly in the imagination of the beholder.
A 1950 newspaper column by journalist/historian Charles “Pie” Dufour in the New Orleans States seems to have popularized the “justice, power and faith” explanation, though Dufour wisely did not totally embrace it. In an earlier column Dufour had explained that there was no acceptable explanation for the origin of the colors. A few days later he heard from a local librarian who drew his attention to Rex’s parade in 1892, which had the theme Symbolism of Colors. Each float displayed a color and a meaning. Floats 7, 12 and 8 depicted purple, green and gold respectively, with justice, faith and power, in that order, assigned as the meaning of each. A flowery statement issued by Rex and published in theTimes-Picayune that year proclaimed those three words to be the meaning of the official colors.
Dufour wondered how the 1892 Rex members knew what was on the minds of the founders 20 years earlier. He suggested that the true origin might be simply that the colors looked good and that they had, as a Picayune editorial on the eve of the first parade noted, a “delightful contrast.”
In the Rex centennial book, If Ever I Cease to Love: One Hundred Years of Rex 1872-1971, Dufour, along with coauthor Leonard Huber, further dashed the prevailing theory –– though it would nevertheless survive. After telling about justice, faith and power being linked to the 1892 parade, they argued: “This of course is an ex post facto explanation, and one may be certain that the colors were selected in 1872 because they were gay and colorful and not because of any symbolism as explained by Rex two decades later.”
Looking for Answers
One reason that the origin of the colors has been so difficult to discover is that the original Rex organizers never offered any explanation. They called for the colors purple, gold and green to be displayed but never said why. That supports Dufour and Huber’s contention that the colors had no meaning. Surely if they did stand for something, the poetic philosophers among Rex’s founders would have said so. But why those particular three colors? For that there has been no answer –– until one-fourth of the way into Rex’s second century. While doing research for the Rex 125th anniversary book Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization (School of Design 1999), lightning struck, and we were able to deduce an answer. The missing link had been found.
Finding the answer began with another question: Why three colors? Why not one? Two? Five? Or 10? Was there anything significant to the number three? The key to that answer may have been hidden in the edicts issued by the Rex founders in the days preceding the first Rex parade and published in the Republican.
Those edicts contained good-natured verbiage that suggested a true sovereign. “His Royal Highness” issued orders preparing for his arrival. In the minds of the founders, a king must have a kingdom and a kingdom must have a national flag. All of the national flags that the Rex organizers would have been most familiar with –– United States, Great Britain, France –– were tricolors. It was probably inconceivable to them that a flag should be anything else but a tricolor.
That resolved, the question became which three colors? Here we might assume that a certain three colors were immediately dismissed: red, white and blue. Not only were those colors already taken by the above-mentioned nations (as well as the Confederacy), but they were also, ever since the Netherlands carried flags of red, white and blue in its war against Spain, the colors of revolution and a republican form of government. Those colors were hardly appropriate for an absolute monarch such as what Rex presented himself to be.
Significance of “Heraldry”
Given that there would be three colors and given that the founders probably ruled out red, white and blue, what then should the colors be?
One color seemed obvious, purple, for that color has traditionally been linked to royalty. From here the selection process takes on a life of its own. The key word here –– and a word that has been missing from attempts to solve the colors’ origin –– is “heraldry.” Dating as far back as the 15th century, the rules of heraldry governed the symbolism of coats of arms and hence flags and banners. The men of Rex, educated and steeped in the romanticism of monarchy, would have been familiar with and respectful of heraldry, which also governs color selections.
According to heraldry, the “fields” in a heraldic device should consist of “metals” and “colors.” The metals are either silver, represented by white, or gold. And indeed every national tricolor has either white or gold. So then for one of Rex’s choices, the selection was narrowed to two. Should the metal be gold? Or should it be white? The choice of gold seemed obvious, especially with white already in such common use.
Now with the metal settled, how about the colors? According to heraldry, there are only five acceptable choices. In the context of Rex, they are startling. The acceptable colors are red, blue, purple, green and black. With purple being a logical choice and with gold as the metal, the final choice came down to two combinations; purple, gold and green or purple, gold and black. The choice seemed obvious.
But now there’s a concern: According to heraldry, a metal should never touch a metal and a color should never touch a color. It would be improper, for example, for a flag to be red, blue and white. Yet Rex’s field is often spoken of as being purple, green and gold, a heraldic faux pas placing a color on top of a color. Does this disprove the heraldry theory? No, it supports it because … in the days preceding the first Rex parade when the royal edicts were published, the fields, as first mentioned in Edict XII, were stated as being, in this order, “green, gold and purple.” Over time the order of the colors would be changed in popular verbal usage, yet when Rex first pronounced them, they were in perfect heraldic order. (The combination of colors does have the extra benefit, as Dufour and Huber suggest, of looking good together.)
Could there be another answer to the meaning of the colors? Perhaps, but any other answer would have to contend with the colors fitting so perfectly into heraldry.
What then should the simple answer be when the colors’ origins are asked? The problem is that the answer is not simple, certainly not as simple as “justice, faith and power.” But the truth only strengthens Rex’s monarchical status: Like all great sovereigns, the colors are based on the laws of heraldry.
Heraldry and War
During the Civil War battle of Manassas, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard of New Orleans became concerned that the Confederate units did not have appropriate battle flags so that one unit could be identified from the other, and so Beauregard sent word for a flag to be designed. Several designs were submitted, including one from E.C. Hancock, a New Orleans journalist who years later would be one of the key figures in the founding of the Rex organization.
Aiding Beauregard in the selection was a former staff member, Col. William Porcher Miles. The colonel rejected one of the favored designs because it was contrary to the laws of heraldry. Miles suggested a flag instead that was similar to Hancock’s proposal –– red with blue bars and white stars. From the incident we learn two things about future Rex founder E. C. Hancock: He had an interest in designing flags, and he was aware of the laws of heraldry.
The Colors Go to LSU
Not only did Rex influence the colors of the nation’s Carnival celebrations but also LSU. There are variations in the story of how the university adopted purple and gold as its colors, but the common thread is that the colors were adopted from Carnival. A generally accepted version of the story is that in 1893 some LSU football players, in anticipation of the team’s inaugural season, were looking for ribbons to adorn their gray jerseys. A Baton Rouge store had stocked Carnival colors in anticipation of the upcoming season — or at least two-thirds of the colors; the green had not arrived yet. So the players settled on purple and gold. (Because the team’s first game was to be against Tulane, green may not have been a popular choice anyway.) Curiously, one of the players, quarterback Ruffin Pleasant, would have even more decisions with statewide implications ahead of him: From 1916 to 1920, he would serve as governor of Louisiana.
Main story and “Heraldry and War” sidebar adapted from Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival –– Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde, Carnival Press 2007. The book is available at bookstores and Amazon.com.