Reunions jackets cover a broad color palette. There’s orange. There’s black. There’s orange and black. There’s black and orange. There’s … well, that’s about it.

In the Bicentennial spring of 1976, however, members of the Class of ’51 threw tradition out the window when they marked their 25th reunion by sporting jackets that were indeed revolutionary. For the first, and so far as anyone knows, only time, the class headed the P-rade wearing jackets of patriotic red, white, and blue.

The jackets — a declaration of independence, as it were, from the tyranny of orange and black — were the brainchild of Donald “Nick” Wilson ’51, who thought the class should do something special to mark the nation’s 200th birthday. As he explained to John Wriedt ’85, curator of the Bob Rodgers ’56 Reunion and Beer Jacket Collection in the online Princetoniana Museum, “I’d never seen a red, white, and blue reunion jacket.”

Photo: Nora Odendahl *85, John Wriedt ’85

Some of Wilson’s purist classmates were not sold on the idea, so to settle the dispute, Wilson proposed they turn to a universally respected arbiter — Fred Fox ’39 — and all agreed to abide by his decision. Officially, Fox was the University’s recording secretary, but he had also recently been named the “Keeper of Princetoniana” and was unofficially known to all as “Mr. Princeton.” In something of a surprise, Fox liked the unorthodox color scheme, pointing out that red and blue had been the unofficial colors of the Whig and Cliosophic debating societies before orange and black were adopted as the University colors shortly after the Civil War.

Wilson found a Philadelphia men’s store that had a red, white, and blue madras patch jacket in stock, and he agreed to buy them in bulk. He also got a large swatch of the fabric, which he personally cut up and distributed so class wives could make them into scarves and skirts. Unfortunately, when it came time to pick up the jackets, Wilson was informed that the manufacturer had run out of fabric and could not get any more of it from India, leaving him 30 to 40 jackets short. With quick thinking, Wilson realized that the class still had an extra supply of beer jackets, and those were distributed as well so everyone had something to wear.

We looked really great in red, white, and blue in the company of all that orange and black in the P-rade to celebrate the nations birthday Princeton in the nations service personified!”

— Donald “Nick” Wilson ’51

Some 283 members of the class returned to campus to celebrate their 25th, but they were hardly the only ones infused with the spirit of ’76 that year. “In observance of the nation’s Bicentennial,” PAW reported at the time, “many classes adopted a Colonial theme for the P-rade. There were fife-and-drum corps galore, rows of marchers garbed as Revolutionary soldiers (and camp followers), until at times the red-white-and-blue seemed to prevail over the orange-and-black.” Amid that much patriotic hoopla, ’51’s unconventional jackets may actually have blended in — PAW did not mention them, at any rate. In fact, the Class of 1945 Trophy for most enterprising P-rade entry that year was awarded to the Class of ’46, which was led by a 10-foot-tall Uncle Sam on stilts.

Even by the extremely lax sartorial standards of Reunions attire, those Bicentennial jackets are garish. But Wilson, at least, was proud of them. “We looked really great in red, white, and blue in the company of all that orange and black in the P-rade to celebrate the nation’s birthday — Princeton in the nation’s service personified!” he told Wriedt.

Others, however, seem to have felt differently. When ’51 celebrated its 30th reunion five years later, in 1981, the members replaced their loud Bicentennial madras with a muted orange, black, and white plaid. They replaced them again, with orange and white seersucker, for their 40th, and have worn that style ever since. The only reminder of their revolutionary 25th reunion is in their logo, which features a Colonial tiger holding a musket.

Jacket design is a subject of intense debate for each 25th reunion class, but there are no formal rules. Guidelines provided by the Alumni Council read simply, “Liberal use of orange and black is the norm, but other colors sometimes appear in keeping with the reunion theme.”

In fact, although several classes include a neutral background color in their jacket designs — such as white, cream, or gray — only two classes have opted for a splash of something really different. The Class of ’77’s jackets include a green garland surrounding the class shield, while ’78’s jackets feature a tiger prowling through pale green palm leaves, appropriate for the class’s 25th reunion theme of “Mid-Life at the Oasis.” Even among Reunions costumes, the only other apparent departure is the Class of ’63, which wore purple shirts and capes for its fifth reunion back in 1968 to celebrate the “Grape Society.”

It’s only three more years until the nation’s 250th. Would members of the Class of ’51 consider sporting red, white, and blue again for their 75th reunion?

“If there are enough of us still alive, we might consider it,” Wilson says.