In many jurisdictions, advocates and judges wear specialised outerwear such as gowns and, sometimes, formal headwear. Barristers (and some Solicitor Advocates) in England and Wales wear wigs made of horsehair and black gowns with a strange pouch hanging over the left-hand shoulder. Judges wear a bewildering array of robes and wigs which differ in style from wigs worn by barristers.
People have different views as to whether or not barristers and judges should continue to wear wigs and gowns. Many lawyers and members of the public consider the wearing of these items to be outdated. Many think that the traditions of the law should be maintained and respected. It is an argument which will no doubt continue unabated.
Barristers have worn wigs since around 1660, after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. At that time there were many different styles and they crept into the courtroom merely because they were fashionable at the time. Both judges and barristers wore wigs, but over time different styles became associated with each profession. Barristers fell into the habit of wearing a Tie-Wig, similar to those they wear today, whilst attorneys (who were the pre-cursors of solicitors) wore Bobwigs, shaped like a bobbed haircut. Judges wore full-bottomed wigs.
The original wigs were very difficult to maintain. Made from horsehair, they had to be frizzed and curled, then treated with “pomatum” – a very thick, scented, ointment – and then covered in a thick layer of powder. This treatment had to be repeated frequently and was as messy as it sounds. In fact, it was the bringing in of a “powder tax” during the wars against the French after the French Revolution in 1790 and the rise of Napoleon Buonaparte which largely led to the ending of the wearing of wigs in the general population (together, it must be said, with the rather macabre adoption of the fashions of post-revolutionary France by rebellious younger members of the aristocracy). Attorneys, who did not appear in Court, stopped wearing wigs as they fell out of fashion.
Barristers and judges refused to bow to fashion and continued to wear their wigs in court. In 1822 Humphrey Ravenscroft filed a patent for a Tie-wig which did not require the wig to be curled, tied or treated in any way once made. It was immediately adopted by the younger members of the Bar, rather to the disgust of the older generation who thought this a sloppy modern innovation (nothing changes!), and who retained the onerous curling and anointing of their own wigs for a long time, even after the patented Ravenscroft full-bottomed wig was introduced in 1835. It is the patented Ravenscroft Tie-wig which is worn to this day by barristers.
It was not until 1922 that the first female barrister, Helena Normanton, was called to the Bar. There was lengthy and, at times, heated discussion about what women should wear in court. There were suggestions that they should wear a biretta, a soft cap which had been worn by lawyers and judges in Tudor times and which can be seen on portraits of Sir Thomas More. In the end it was sensibly decided that female barristers would wear the wig, which, as with male barristers, should be worn with no hair showing at the front (and long hair always tied back). If you watch a TV drama and see a barrister with beautiful flowing locks and/or a fringe protruding from under a wig you can be assured that every barrister in the country is commenting, loudly, on how wrong it is. We also comment on ill-fitting wigs, wigs which look too new, wigs worn too far forward, wigs worn too far back .. the list is endless and it is not surprising that many spouses flatly refuse to watch legal dramas with their barristerial partner!
A few years ago, after a long battle, Solicitor Advocates won the right to wear the wig with their solicitor’s gowns, if they choose to. The only barristers who have a dispensation not to wear the wig are male members of the Sikh faith, who may wear a snow white turban instead, and Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf (hijab), usually in black. They may, if they wish, wear the wig on top of the hijab and many do make this choice.
Wigs are a remnant of history, often hot, often uncomfortable, irredeemably flattening your hair when worn all day. Those flowing locks in TV dramas are unrealistic as well as wrong in principle! Nevertheless, a few years ago, the majority of barristers (and Solicitor Advocates) voted in favour of keeping wigs and gowns. Interestingly, a very high proportion of those of us from non-traditional backgrounds, including women and ethnic minorities, voted in favour of keeping them. There are many reasons for this. Partly it is tradition, partly it is because the wigs and gowns grant a certain amount of anonymity but mainly it is because once you wear the wig it matters not what your gender, sexual orientation or ethnic identity is – you are a barrister.
Barristers, Wigs and Other Oddities (1)