colors

Purple, gold and green are the official colors of Mardi Gras.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

One of the very few official things about Carnival is the colors — purple, green and gold.

Rex introduced them in 1872 in advance of his first parade. In a royal edict, Rex encouraged citizens along the parade route to hang banners in these colors from their balconies.

While this much is fact, deciding why these colors were selected and the meaning of each has been the topic of debate for a long time.

Some writers have falsely claimed that these were the royal colors of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, whose visit to New Orleans at Mardi Gras was allegedly (though in fact not) the whole reason for the first Rex parade.

One writer declared that they were inspired by the colors of the robes the first Rex borrowed from Shakespearean actor Lawrence Barrett, who was performing as Richard III at the Varieties Theater in New Orleans. Others have suggested that the colors were chosen simply because they looked good together.

New Orleans Magazine editor and Carnival historian Errol Laborde provides perhaps the best explanation. In his 2007 book "Krewe," he writes, “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 were tri-color.”

Laborde concludes that the selection of colors was governed by the laws of heraldry, which require that “the three ‘fields’ … should consist of ‘metals' and ‘colors.’ ” Once gold was selected as the metal, purple seemed logical since traditionally it represented royalty. For the final color, there were only four acceptable choices: red, blue, green and black. The founders of Rex decided that the most attractive combination was purple, gold and green.

The Rex organization later assigned the meanings as gold for power, green for faith and purple for justice, citing their 1892 parade theme "Symbolism of Colors" as the inspiration. But this was certainly an after-the-fact explanation. The founders of Rex never explained the reason for or the meaning of the colors.

Since at least 1906, official Rex flags have flown over the homes of the past and current kings and queens of Carnival. The year of their reign appears on the bottom of the flag, which measures 6 feet by 9 feet and is traditionally hung 21 days before Fat Tuesday.

Last year, Rex flags flew over more than 70 residences of former kings and queens of Carnival. The Uptown ZIP code of 70118 has the most homes — 28, with the 70125 and 70130 neighborhoods close behind.

By the way, although almost everyone lists the Carnival colors as purple, green and gold, officially purple and green should never touch. So the colors should be displayed top to bottom or left to right in the order of purple, gold and green.

Contact Arthur Hardy at mardihardy@gmail.com.