Mardi Gras is one of the biggest annual celebrations in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The festival is marked by parades, parties, and people wearing colorful costumes and throwing beads and trinkets. Three colors dominate the Mardi Gras aesthetics – purple, green, and gold. But why were these specific colors chosen to represent Mardi Gras? Here’s a look at the history and meaning behind the iconic Mardi Gras colors.
The Origins of Mardi Gras
To understand the significance of the Mardi Gras colors, it helps to first look at the history of Mardi Gras itself. Mardi Gras has its roots in medieval Europe. It originated as a last hurrah to eat, drink, and be merry before the fasting season of Lent began. The name “Mardi Gras” comes from the French meaning “Fat Tuesday,” reflecting this feasting tradition.
As time went on, Mardi Gras developed into an official Christian holiday. When French colonists settled in what is now Mobile, Alabama in 1703, they introduced the Mardi Gras traditions they knew from Europe. This included wearing masks and costumes, hosting balls and parties, and parading through the streets. Mardi Gras grew as it spread into New Orleans in the 1730s and 1840s. Today, it is one of the biggest festivals in the United States.
How the Colors Emerged
In 1872, the first documented account of Mardi Gras colors appeared in New Orleans. The tradition began with the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe. Local businessman Michael Augustin brought oranges from Spain and distributed them to revelers to throw during a nighttime parade. He dubbed the oranges “golden spheres.”
Soon after, Russian nobility visited New Orleans and participated in the festivities. They threw beads and trinkets that were purple, green, and gold. These colors represented justice, faith, and power, respectively. The colors caught on in the city and became customary to see during Mardi Gras.
The Meaning Behind the Colors
Beyond representing abstract concepts, the three colors hold symbolic meaning:
Purple is thought to symbolize justice. During Lent, Christians were supposed to repent and reflect on their behavior over the past year. Justice refers to making things right with God by asking for forgiveness.
Green is said to represent faith. As Lent began, Christians were called to renew and strengthen their faith through fasting, prayer, and worship. Green is the color of springtime and new growth.
Gold signifies power, particularly the power of the Catholic Church. During medieval times, purple dye was expensive to make and associated with royalty and prestige. Along with gold, the color reminded people of the wealth and authority of the Church.
Why the Colors Endured
While the exact details vary, most accounts credit Michael Augustin and the visit of Russian nobility as key to establishing purple, green, and gold as the staple Mardi Gras colors. But why have these colors endured when other traditions faded away?
A few factors helped cement them as icons of Mardi Gras:
– Distinctiveness: The palette of purple, green, and gold stands out against the backdrop of everyday colors. During a raucous festival filled with sensory overload, these colors immediately signal that Mardi Gras is happening.
– Symbolism: The colors’ ties to justice, faith, and power resonated with people and reinforced the meaning of the Lenten season. The symbolism helped the tradition take hold.
– Versatility: Purple, green, and gold work for decorations, costumes, throws, and parade floats. Their visual appeal allows for creative use across all aspects of Mardi Gras.
– Tradition: Once established, traditions tend to persist through new generations. People expect to see these colors year after year for Mardi Gras.
By the 1900s, purple, green, and gold were an unmistakable part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras experience. They had become synonymous with excess, exuberance, and revelry leading up to Lent. Their rich heritage continues today.
The Saints and the Mardi Gras Colors
In the 1960s, Louisiana’s new professional football team, the Saints, selected black and gold as their official team colors. Some saw this as infringing on the traditional Mardi Gras palette.
But others thought the pairing acknowledged Mardi Gras and brought more visibility to New Orleans. When the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, fans proudly incorporated the fleur-de-lis, Saints colors, and Mardi Gras colors into the celebrations.
Rather than competing, the two color palettes now coexist as icons of the state of Louisiana. Locals often sport Saints jerseys along with purple, green, and gold beads for Mardi Gras festivities.
The Corporate Side of Mardi Gras
As Mardi Gras attracted more participation and publicity, businesses also tapped into the color scheme. Popular throw items like plastic beads and doubloons often feature one or more of the iconic colors.
Companies with Mardi Gras product lines have included:
|Zapp’s||Purple, green, and gold potato chips|
|Hansen’s||Sno-balls in Mardi Gras colors|
|New Orleans Fish House||Purple, green, and gold seafood packaging|
In a 2011 marketing stunt, McDonald’s even sold a limited batch of purple, green, and gold-colored French fries. The brightly colored fries were available in certain Louisiana stores in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.
While some complain this commodifies tradition, most fans enjoy having Mardi Gras-themed food and merchandise. The colors remain iconic representations of the Carnival season.
The Color Palette Spreads
New Orleans undoubtedly established and popularized purple, green, and gold for Mardi Gras. But as Mardi Gras celebrations popped up in other parts of the world, the color scheme spread as well.
Now Mardi Gras events across the United States embrace the iconic hues. Major parades and festivals can be found in:
Internationally, cities as far away as Sydney and Rio de Janeiro have adopted the purple, green, and gold palette for their Mardi Gras celebrations.
Wherever Mardi Gras is observed, seeing these colors helps set the festive mood and signals the start of the Carnival season. The New Orleans-born tradition has become a global phenomenon.
What people throw during Mardi Gras parades has evolved over time. In the early days, it was fresh produce like oranges. Beads were originally made of glass before cheaper plastic versions became mass-produced.
Here are some throwing trends through the decades:
|1800s||Fresh fruit, nuts, flowers|
|Early 1900s||Glass beads, raisins, non-perishable snacks|
|1930s-1950s||Plastic beads, stuffed animals, toys|
|1980s-1990s||Beads, doubloons, cups|
|2000s-present||Beads, stuffed animals, LED items, specialty throws|
The trend has been toward cheaper, plastic throws made specifically for Mardi Gras. But some krewes are going back to more sustainable options like flowers, herbs, and fruits.
Many throws still prominently feature the customary purple, green, and gold colors. Collectible limited-edition throws often come in color combinations that match the krewe’s parade theme for that year.
How Parades Get Their Colors
The floats, costumes, and throws you see during each Mardi Gras parade are not random. The distinct designs reflect the “color scheme” chosen by that parade’s krewe for that year.
Mardi Gras krewes select a unique theme and color scheme every year. Some examples:
|Bacchus||2023||Bacchus Goes to the Circus||Blue, red, yellow|
|Endymion||2022||The Roaring 20s||Black, gold, silver|
|Zeus||2021||Zeus Goes to Atlantis||Sea green, blue, purple|
The colors tie into the theme and brand the parade with a distinct look for that year. But the traditional purple, green, and gold can still make an appearance too.
Krewe members have a special uniform for riding that incorporates the signature hues. The colors also adorn the floats, along with decor related to the theme. Throw items and souvenir cups draw from the color scheme as well.
Spotting matching hues across the parade reveals how krewes carefully coordinate each procession down to the last detail. The colors help bring the unique vision for that year’s event to life.
Purple, Green, and Gold in Decor
Mardi Gras colors adorn more than just parade floats and costumes. Over time, purple, green, and gold became ingrained in the décor and design aesthetic of New Orleans.
Homes, businesses, restaurants, and hotels often prominently feature the iconic trio. Examples include:
|Location||Use of colors|
|Exterior paint or trim||Purple, green, or gold details|
|Interior accent walls||Murals or paint in Mardi Gras hues|
|Furnishings||Pillows, lamps, rugs, curtains|
|Lighting||Strings of purple, green, and gold bulbs|
The colors make businesses stand out and give interiors a festive, playful vibe year-round. Homeowners also repaint doorways, add wreaths, or hang up flags each year before Mardi Gras arrives.
In New Orleans, seeing those three shades everywhere reinforces that Mardi Gras is not just a one-day event—it’s an essential part of the city’s identity and culture.
Mardi Gras colors now feel intrinsically tied to New Orleans and the Carnival season. But their status developed over many decades, beginning with the opera balls held by early krewes.
While the exact details are uncertain, the colors likely emerged thanks to Michael Augustin’s “golden spheres” and Russian nobility’s purple, green, and gold throws. Their symbolism and visual appeal helped cement them as Mardi Gras staples.
Today, the iconic palette permeates every facet of Mardi Gras from parade throws to street decor. The next time you see those purple, green, and gold hues, remember the rich heritage they carry and their embodiment of Carnival spirit.