A sea of orange and black swept across campus last weekend. Alumni marched through FitzRandolph Gate with orange and black blazers, costumes, ties, hats, and banners — proudly wearing and carrying their university colors.
Orange, however, is among the most controversial colors. Many either love it or despise it; it’s difficult to feel neutral towards it. I asked several Princetonians how they felt about it, and their responses varied from adoration to aversion. Many remarked how the color has grown on them over the years. A senior, David Melvin ’19, reflected, “It’s strange as a university color. But I like that it’s strange. It makes a statement.”
In fact, Princeton is unique among the Ivy Leagues for its audacious color. Most other Ivy League universities have red (Harvard, Cornell) or blue (Yale, Columbia) or a combination of red and blue (UPenn) for their emblems and shields. Princeton stands out boldly in its orange.
This raises the question: when and why did Princeton adopt the color orange? The answer lies with a first-year student named George Ward, who observed that there were no school-specific colors at Princeton. He therefore suggested, in April 1866, that Princeton adopt the color orange — alluding to William III of the House of Nassau, known as the “Prince of Orange,” after whom Princeton’s first building, Nassau Hall, was named.
On June 26 of the following year, at a baseball game at Yale, Ward gave his baseball teammates badges of orange ribbons with their class year, “ ’69 B.B.C.,” printed in black. This was the first recorded instance of orange and black used as the University’s colors.
The college faculty gave approval for students to “adopt and wear as the college badge an orange-colored ribbon bearing upon it the word ‘Princeton’” in October 1868, at once maintaining the college’s historical association with the royal House of Orange and promoting the college’s unofficial name, Princeton, though the University was then called the College of New Jersey.
In the following years, numerous more Princeton sports teams donned the orange and black. At an intercollegiate rowing race in Saratoga, New York, in 1874, members of the fresh-year crew team wore orange and black silk ribbons on their hatbands. At an 1876 game against Yale, Princeton’s football team wore black jerseys showcasing an orange “P” on the chest. Further endorsing the colors, in 1888, Clarence Mitchell ’89 and Ernest Carter ’88 created a song called “The Orange and Black.”
In 1896, these colors became even more official. That year, as the College of New Jersey celebrated its 150th anniversary and changed its name to Princeton University, the trustees chose orange and black as the official colors for the academic gowns.
The standard Princeton Orange, Pantone 158, was created in 1959. The original cloth inspiring the shade is kept in archives for historical reference.
The color orange is an overlooked part of the Princeton experience, as the color continues to play an integral role in Princeton’s identity and spirit. Orange helped inspire our mascot, the Tiger. In a 2014 University blog post, “Which came first? The Tiger or his stripes?,” Christa Cleeton reveals that Princeton adopted the tiger’s colors long before adopting the actual tiger. It was the former that inspired the latter. For years before its official adoption, Princeton’s cheers contained the rallying word “tiger.” For instance, the aforementioned “Orange and Black” song contains the lines, “the Tiger stands defender of the Orange and the Black.”
Moreover, as Princeton football players of the early 1880s wore clothes with orange and black stripes, they prompted sportswriters to call them “tigers.” In a famous 1890 game against Yale, the New York Tribune remarked, “The Princeton tigers come running out on the field.” W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 notes, “It’s been Tigers ever since.” Increasingly, the tiger began to appear in the name of student publications (such as The Princeton Tiger humor magazine) and eating clubs (the Inn eating club renamed itself Tiger Inn in 1893). The tiger then appeared in more solid form as statues all over campus, from the area between Whig and Clio to the entrance of Nassau Hall.
It also took a more animated form as our furry mascot, rallying the crowds during games. And it took a more abstract form, in our hearts, as an emblem of “graceful power and courage,” standing for our “highest ideals,” in the words of Frederic Fox ’39.
Wearing orange has intriguing psychological effects. “I don’t think shy people wear orange. You want to be noticed if you wear orange,” explained Sara Petitt, who teaches fabric styling at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in a CNN Colorscope article. “If you are depressed and you go to your closet, you are probably not going to pick out an orange dress to wear.” Indeed, the bright visible color is worn by people who want to be seen, whether they are vogue models on the runway or construction workers on the highway.
Not only do we have to feel bold and happy to wear orange, but wearing orange can make us feel bold and happy. Colors influence our behaviors and emotions, and even our physiology. According to color psychology, orange inspires optimism, courage, creativity, determination, enthusiasm, and vitality. An extraverted color, it makes us open up and socialize, which is why it’s frequently used in party decors. It makes us respect ourselves and others to a greater extent, and it inspires greater energy and activity. This makes me wonder how many more social interactions we have had, deals we have struck, or bold acts we have undertaken because we were wearing or were surrounded by orange.
Orange also represents numerous Princeton ideals. Orange is a color of transition, of sunrises and sunsets, and of autumn leaves marking a change in the season. Likewise, Princeton is a place of transformation; it is where we come to expand our minds and grow to new horizons.
Furthermore, orange is the color of appetite. It is the natural color of fruits and vegetables, like oranges, mangoes, peaches, apricots, carrots, and tangerines; of spices like paprika, saffron, and curry powder; and of Thanksgiving harvests and pumpkins during Halloween. Thus, in Western culture, the color is associated with aroma and good taste and stimulates our appetite. Similarly, Princeton stimulates our appetite for knowledge. At the University, we delve deeper into our intellectual disciplines and as we learn more, we realize there is much more to learn, sowing in us a lifelong hunger for knowledge.
In Eastern religions, orange is a sacred color. Hindu and Buddhist monks wear saffron orange robes, and in Hinduism, orange represents the flames that burn impurities. In contrast, Westerners conceive orange as a color of amusement and frivolity, of Nickelodeon cartoon and fizzy Fanta drinks. Greek muses often wore orange and, in many mythological paintings, so did Bacchus, the pagan Roman god of ecstasy and wine. Thus, the color orange has different meanings across cultures. Nonetheless, whether it represents deep spirituality or high spirits, the color universally evokes a sense of spiritedness.
At Princeton, this spirit is especially revealed during reunions. This year, around 25,000 alumni, family and friends visited campus and celebrated their alma mater. There were cheers and music in the air, fireworks in the evening skies, and an unparalleled electric energy. The color orange in Princetonians’ costumes, banners, and decor indelibly added to this dynamic atmosphere. I cannot imagine reunions being as lively without it.
Like the color orange, Princeton is unsubtle about its school pride. No other university comes close to matching Princeton reunions in fanfare and style. Surely, Princeton’s orange has, for centuries, reflected a school spirit that is decidedly uninhibited.
At Princeton, we work hard. And as the reunions and graduation celebrations last weekend revealed, we also celebrate hard. As a marriage between the two colors, orange embodies the intensity of red and the levity of yellow. It is the essence of Princeton captured in a color.