Court dress, and in particular legal wigs, is a tradition that goes back many generations. But where does it come from and when did the tradition start?
Legal wigs through the ages
Headgear of some sort has been worn in court for hundreds of years. Even in early Tudor times, black flat bonnets or caps were worn by judges and barristers. Until the seventeenth century, lawyers were expected to appear in court with clean, short hair and beards.
Lawyers and judges began wearing wigs in around 1680. For 150 years, the legal wig was usually white or grey. The introduction of wearing wigs in the courtroom was largely influenced by the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), who made wigs essential wear for polite society.
It took a little while for all judiciary members to adopt this wig policy though. Many portraits of judges from the early 1680s depicted judges without wigs until around 1685.
During the reign of George III (1760-1820), wigs gradually went out of fashion. By the end of the century they were mainly worn by bishops, coachmen and the legal profession.
Judges always wore full-bottomed wigs until the 1780s, at which point the less formal, and smaller, bob-wig was introduced. The bob-wig featured frizzed sides rather than curls, and a short tail or queue at the back. This was adopted for civil trials.
The full-bottomed wig continued to be used for criminal trials until the 1840s. Today, the full-bottomed wig is reserved for ceremonial dress whereas smaller wigs are used on a day-to-day basis.
The French influence on barrister wigs
Did you know that the word ‘wig’ is short for ‘periwig’, which derives from the French word for a wig - ‘perruque’?
You might say that King Louis XIV of France was a bit of a trend-setter when it came to legal wigs in the UK. During his reign from 1643 to 1715, he disguised his prematurely balding scalp (which historians believe was caused by syphilis) by wearing a wig.
His fashion choice was copied by the European upper- and middle-classes, including his cousin, Charles II, the King of England. King Charles was also rumored to have contracted syphilis, so it is thought that he also attempted to disguise his balding head with wigs during his reign from 1660 to 1685.
By 1680, most judges and barristers wore wigs in court. Wigs were considered fashionable and they signified wealth and status. In 1680, the legal wig was made from white or grey hair that was usually powdered.
These types of wigs were worn for approximately 150 years. Then, in the early 1820s, a new form of wig was invented by Humphrey Ravenscroft. This wig was made using whitish-grey horsehair and it was well-liked by many people because it was very easy to maintain and did not require curling, powdering, perfuming or even frizzing.
The difference between judges wigs and barrister wigs
It is a signal of junior status that a young barrister will wear a bright new wig. Wearing a well worn yellowing or greying wig would look incongruous. Their bright new wig would be a short horsehair one, with curls at the side and ties down the back.
To accompany their wig, junior barristers wear an open-fronted black gown with open sleeves. The gown is gathered and decorated with buttons and ribbons, and a gathered yoke. They would wear this over a black or dark suit.
Once a law student has completed the Bar Vocational Course, they are admitted to the bar. The bar is the entry point into the field of law. The qualified barrister would then need to have the legal wig in order to start practicing.
Qualified barristers wear "tie-wigs," which cover half the head and Judges wear smaller "bob-wigs".
Solicitors wear the same wing collar with bands, or collarette, as barristers. However, their gowns are slightly different. Solicitors gowns have a square collar and without gathered sleeves.
Judges robes have always varied depending on the status of the judge and the type of court. In addition to robes, judges have generally worn a short bench wig when working in court (reserving the long wig for ceremonial occasions) and a wing collar and bands at the neck.
Is court dress always still worn?
Traditional court dress is usually worn at hearings in open court in all Senior Courts of England and Wales and in county courts. There are certain occasions when court dress doesn’t have to be worn, for example, in very hot weather, or where it could intimidate children, such in the Family Division and at the trials of minors. Also, court dress is not worn at hearings in chambers or in magistrates' courts.
All judges in criminal cases continue to wear traditional forms of dress. However, since 2008, judges in civil and family cases, have worn a new design of working robe with no wig, collar or bands. This plain, dark, zipped gown is worn over an ordinary business suit and tie.
The status of the wearer is indicated by a pair of different colored tabs below the collar:
Appeal Court judges wear gold tabs
High Court judges wear red tabs
Masters of the High Court wear pink
District judges wear blue.
It was originally envisaged that Circuit judges sitting in the High Court would likewise adopt the new-style robe with purple tabs, however they chose to retain their violet robe as worn in the County Court.
On special ceremonial occasions (such as the opening of the legal year) more elaborate forms of traditional dress are worn, by both civil and criminal judges.
Why do judges and barristers wear wigs today?
Many wonder why the legal robe and wig tradition has stuck around for so long. Whilst a growing number of people feel that the dress code is as outdated as a suit of armor, others believe that wigs should still be worn to maintain the tradition and to enforce the authority of the law.
Traditionalists might also argue that the uniform carries a sense of power and respect for the law. The robes and wigs also make it more difficult for judges to be identified by criminal defendants outside of the courtroom.
In recent years, there have been several attempts to get rid of legal wigs completely. In 2007, a case to alter the dress code was brought to court. The case won. The Lord Chief Justice stated that wigs would no longer be worn during civil or family cases and that judges need only one robe.
Today, barristers don’t need to wear the traditional wig and gown when they stand before the Supreme Court or in civil or family cases. Wigs are now only required in criminal cases.
What do you think about legal wigs and gowns? Do you think they are outdated or do you think it’s important to uphold traditions? We would love to hear your opinions! Share your thoughts about judge and barrister wigs in the comments below.
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