The courtroom dress of British judges and barristers (which is what British people call lawyers) may look straight out of the Renaissance, but the wigs and robes are more than just a chance to play dress up. The tradition of wearing a white wig and a robe dates back to the 17th century—and not much of the uniform has changed since.
In 1625, an academic paper called The Discourse on Robes and Apparel forever changed the way British high court officials dressed. This work led to the adoption of the robe and wig as the courtroom uniform to distinguish judges and barristers from other members of society. The Discourse on Robes and Apparel not only dictated what could be worn in a court of law, but the conditions and even seasons for each outfit, as well.
Courtroom wear isn’t just boring black and white. Seasons and the type of case determine the color and style of robe judges wear. Robes of violet, green, black, and scarlet have served different purposes through the years, though the color requirements have fluctuated many times in the last few centuries.
But robes are just half of the look. What about those wigs? The fashion trends of the 17th century helped wigs work their way into courtrooms. The headpieces were fully adopted as proper legal wear by 1685 and came with just as many strict rules as robes. Today, both judges and barristers wear wigs, but each has their own style.
Courtroom wigs are white, often handcrafted out of horsehair, and can cost thousands of pounds. Judges used to wear long, curled, full-bottom wigs until the 1780s when they switched to smaller bench wigs. Barristers wear forensic wigs which consist of a frizzed crown with four rows of seven curls in the back.
What’s The Point?
Many wonder why the robe and wig tradition has stuck around for so long. Traditionalists will tell you 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 the courtroom.
However, the desire to keep formality and an homage to the court’s history has been challenged. In 2007, a case to change the dress code was brought to court, and it won. The Lord Chief Justice, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, stated that wigs would no longer be worn during civil or family cases and that judges need only one robe. Phillips’ wanted to simplify the court dress policies, reports Reuters.
“At present High Court judges have no less than five different sets of working dress, depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sitting and the season of the year,” Phillips said in his statement on the suit. “After widespread consultation it has been decided to simplify this.”
The wigs and robes are still to be worn during criminal trials, but some people want the tradition to be fully wiped from the books. A growing number of lawyers feel the dress code is outdated as a suit of armor and believe the British courts should be more focused on important issues—and not on what officials are wearing.