The wearing of wigs and gowns in UK courts has a long history, dating back to the 17th century. The dress of judges and barristers, especially for special or ceremonial occasions, is extremely distinctive.
We have gathered together some of the common questions we are asked about court dress.
Pictured: Lawyer's Office, by Pieter de Bloot, 1628 Dutch painting, oil on panel.
Why do barristers wear wigs and gowns?
Barristers began to wear wigs and gowns simply because they had become a normal part of formal clothing. King Louis XIV of France popularised the wearing of wigs during his reign in the 1600s, and they became an essential wardrobe item for men in polite society. There was some initial resistance to the wearing in court of what were described as ‘grotesque ornaments’, with some judges refusing to allow wig-wearing barristers to appear before them. However, by the late 17th century, wigs had been embraced wholeheartedly and remained popular for around a hundred years.
By the early 19th century wigs had fallen out of favour as formalwear, but they had become an essential part of a barrister’s uniform.
Why do judges wear wigs and gowns?
In a similar way to barristers, judges began wearing gowns and wigs in court because that is how they would have dressed for formal occasions away from court. The long robe worn by a judge, known as a gown, had been viewed as the proper formal attire for a man since the 14th century. The publication of the Judges’ Rules in 1635 codified what type of robes were required, but was based on what judges were already wearing at the time.
The wearing of wigs similarly followed the fashion of the day, becoming commonplace for judges by the 1680s.
As gowns and wigs fell out of fashion, they became a mark of a judge’s profession, rather than the normal clothing worn by a gentleman.
Should barristers wear wigs and gowns?
Opinion is divided as to whether traditional wigs and gowns should continue to be required. As early as the 1940s, MPs debated the banning of wigs and gowns in court. The wearing of wigs and gowns has slowly diminished in recent years, with business attire now being acceptable in some court situations.
Those who think barristers should no longer wear wigs and gowns often feel that traditional court dress is old-fashioned and serves no practical purpose in today’s court. They may also be mindful that the cost of purchasing and maintaining wigs and gowns can be prohibitive for new barristers. It is also sometimes felt that traditional court dress is intimidating and can make members of the public who are involved in court proceedings uncomfortable. This could perhaps prove to be an additional barrier to access to justice.
On the other hand, those who support the continuation of court attire often feel that it helps to reinforce a sense of respect for legal professionals. Many feel that it adds to the solemnity of the situation, and helps to differentiate legal professionals from members of the public in the court. It may also help barristers to maintain a certain amount of anonymity outside the court. That anonymity reinforces an idea of impartiality, that the law is the most important element in the court, rather than the personality of any one individual.
Whichever side of the fence you fall on, there is no denying the long history and tradition associated with court dress, and how firmly it is a part of the culture and identity of barristers in the UK.
What is court attire?
Court attire refers to the clothing and accessories that legal professionals wear in court. In England and Wales there are very specific rules as to what must be worn by judges and advocates in each type of court.
Gowns in this context refers to the long robes worn by legal professionals over their suits, and not to party dresses, though this would be much more fun.
Barristers don’t wear ties in court, but instead they wear ‘bands’. These are two rectangular strips of starched white cloth which are attached around the collar and which hang from the throat. Unlike a tie, they sit on the outside of the suit jacket and robe.
Collarettes are upright collars with barrister bands already in place and a small piece of shirt front attached, like a bib. They sometimes have strings attached so that the bib section can be held in place by being tied behind the back. They are usually worn by female barristers under a suit jacket and look for all the world like a formal shirt, while hiding the toasty warm jumper the barrister is possibly wearing during a freezing December trial.
When to wear wig and gown
The generally accepted advice as to when barristers are expected to wear wigs and gowns is rather complex.
Court dress is not required in the Magistrates Court or in Youth Courts. However, in all other courts, the advice varies depending on the court and the type of case being heard. The Bar Council provides comprehensive advice for barristers as to when they will be expected to wear court attire. As a general rule, if the case could result in a prison sentence, then wigs and gowns would be worn.
In cases where wigs and gowns are not required barristers wear business attire, generally a dark coloured suit and smart shirt and tie or blouse.
Do all barristers need to buy a wig and gown?
It isn’t a requirement for barristers to buy a wig and gown. Depending on the area of law a barrister works in, they may only be called upon to wear court attire very occasionally, and so might choose to hire what they need. Alternatively, they may be able to borrow a wig and gown from their chambers.
Headscarf-wearing Muslims and turban-wearing Sikhs may not need to buy a wig, as they may instead wear a sober coloured headscarf or turban where court dress is required.
In practice, a great many barristers will need to wear full court dress very regularly, and so purchasing their own gown and wig simplifies matters. For many barristers, their wig and gown are tangible representations of what they have worked so hard to achieve, and they can’t wait to have their own.
Does a solicitor wear a gown and wig in court?
Solicitor advocates are permitted to represent clients in the higher courts. They wear gowns which are slightly different from barristers’ gowns, and they also wear bands with collars or collarettes. Solicitor advocates may choose to wear wigs in the same circumstances in which barristers usually wear them, although this is not a requirement.
Solicitors who have ‘taken silk’ would usually wear a silk gown, in the same way as King’s Counsel barristers.
Solicitors who do not have higher rights of audience do not represent clients in the higher courts and therefore do not need to wear court dress.
What are the different wigs and gowns in court?
There is an abundant variety of types of court dress. Judges, Barristers, King’s Counsels, Solicitor Advocates, Recorders, Coroners, Ushers and Clerks of the Court all wear slightly different forms of court dress. Even among judges different types of court dress are worn. A Court of Appeal Judge would dress a little differently to a District Judge, and the robes worn by a High Court Judge are slightly different again.
Depending on the role and qualification of the person wearing them, gowns could be black, red or lilac. The tabs at the neck of the gown can be gold, lilac, red, pink or blue, each denoting a different role. There are red sashes and lilac sashes (known as tippets), short wigs for every day and long wigs for ceremonial occasions. There is even further variety based on whether the case is a criminal or civil matter, the type of court, when certain types of High Court business are being dealt with or whether it is a particular saint’s day or the King’s birthday.
Do barristers still wear wigs and gowns?
Although the wearing of wigs and gowns is less prevalent than it used to be, they are still worn for many types of court hearings, particularly in cases which could result in someone being deprived of their liberty. Full court dress is worn for most trials and in most Crown Court cases.
However, in Youth Courts, Magistrates Courts, many County Court cases and a number of types of High Court cases, business attire is worn instead.