The following is from New Orleans Magazine editor and Carnival historian Errol Laborde's weekly blog on MyNewOrleans.com. Read more of Laborde's Carnival coverage in New Orleans Magazine or at MyNewOrleans.com and look for more Carnival stories from him here and on WWL-TV Channel 4 and the Eyewitness Morning News on WUPL-TV Channel 54.
Each year, around this time in the Carnival season, I get aggravated when the various media try to explain the origin of Carnival’s colors. The explanations are all wrong. And not just slightly wrong, but totally wrong. The problem is that the true answer, which has to do with heraldry, is rather complex but answers to historic questions often tend to favor the simple explanation. (That has always made me wonder how much else we are told in history is wrong in favor of the easy answer.) Below is the true explanation and you will probably not read it anywhere else.
Before I present what the TRUE origin of the colors is, let me tell you what it is NOT.
• It is not because the colors stand for justice, faith and power.
• It is not because they look good.
• It is not because they were the colors of the Grand Duke Alexis’ Romanoff dynasty.
• It is not because of anything else you might have heard other than what follows.
So, pay attention. This is more than just about colors. To understand the truth, it also helps to understand the mindset of nineteenth century men who were in leadership positions. If you care for Carnival’s history and culture, please spread the word and help keep the facts straight in a world obsessed with easy answers.
WHAT WE KNOW
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 carried proclamations issued by the newly created “King of the Carnival” declaring that balconies should be draped in purple, green and gold. 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 answer, contemporary explanation has been that the colors stand for justice, faith and power; but one might wonder why those qualities were so special to the Rex founders. Why not faith, hope and charity? Or trustworthy, loyal and helpful?
A 1950 newspaper column by journalist and 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 after the column published, he heard from a local librarian who drew his attention to Rex’s parade in 1892 that had the theme “Symbolism of Colors.” Each float displayed a color and a meaning. Floats seven, eight and 12 depicted purple, green and gold with justice, faith and power, respectively, assigned as the meaning of each color. A flowery statement issued by Rex, and published in The Times-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 simply be 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," authors Pie Dufour and Leonard Huber further dashed the prevailing theory, though it would nevertheless survive. After explaining 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 (The 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 by a local newspaper, 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 then, 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), they were – 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 fifteenth 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 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 field, 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/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 color’s origin is 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.
This article is from New Orleans Magazine editor and Carnival historian Errol Laborde's weekly blog on MyNewOrleans.com. Read more of Laborde's Carnival coverage in New Orleans Magazine or at MyNewOrleans.com and look for more Carnival stories from him here and on WWL-TV Channel 4 and on the Eyewitness Morning News on WUPL-TV Channel 54.