The legal profession in the UK is one of few that still uses traditional clothing when appearing in court. Judges and barristers wear gowns and wigs in many courts in the UK, whilst solicitors must wear gowns when appearing in certain settings.
Wigs have been in use in courts in the UK since the 17th Century. At that time they were not specific to the legal profession as gentlemen usually wore powdered wigs as a fashion item. Although this type of wig has not been worn by members of the public for centuries, they have remained in use by barristers and solicitors in many courtroom settings.
Legal wigs are traditionally made of horse-hair and can be purchased from most legal outfitters in either a grey or blonde colour. The grey colour tends to be more popular in the UK, whereas the blonde wig has been largely adopted in commonwealth jurisdictions, such as Nigeria.
The shape of the wig denotes the seniority of the wearer in the court. A barrister will wear a small wig with a distinctive looped pattern and two ‘tails’ that hang down the back of the neck. A bencher wears a wig that is a similar shape and size to the barrister wig but it does not have the same looped weave and instead has a fuzzier texture.
The judge’s wig is the most resplendent of them all. Known as a ‘full-bottomed’ wig and is much longer and drapes over the shoulders of the wearer in a bell shape.
Barristers and solicitors each have a distinctive style of black gown. Barristers used to wear coloured gowns, however after Charles II died black robes were adopted in mourning and remained in use until the present day. The barrister gown has a small piece of cloth at the back in a triangular shape. No one is very clear on how or why this feature developed exclusively for the barrister gown, however one theory is that it was used as a pocket for the barrister’s brief fee.
Judge’s robes tend to be more colourful and ornate. They are usually red, and some of the most senior judicial positions wear ceremonial robes embroidered with gold.
Legal Regalia in the Present Day
Some courts have now done away with the requirement to wear wigs and gowns, and they are now most commonly seen in the criminal courts, rather than civil courts. All newly qualified barristers will, however, have one opportunity to wear the wig and gown and that is for their admission ceremony to the profession (known as the ‘Call to the Bar’). Many student barristers will choose to hire a wig and gown for this occasion, rather than pay the high prices for buying a wig.
There has also been recent criticism that the solicitor and barrister wigs and gowns make the profession seem elitist and old fashioned, and they should be got rid of to make the legal profession more diverse. Many lawyers objected to this proposal however, so it seems the wig and gown is here to stay for the time being.
At Churchill Gowns you can buy your legal wear, with prices starting from £70: https://churchillgowns.com/collections/legal