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Court dress in England and Wales

Judges and lawyers in England and Wales wear different types of formal costume in court, including wigs and gowns.

Judges

Judges have been wearing special forms of headgear and robes since the Middle Ages. In the 14th century judges wore the same habit as Serjeants-at-Law, an order of elite lawyers from whom common law judges were appointed. This consisting of a long robe, hood, tabard (a short apron-like outer coat), and a white coif – a sort of cap. From around 1400 the tabard was replaced with a mantle or cloak.

In 1635, the judges sitting in Westminster issued a ‘solemn decree’ prescribing the different types of robe to be worn. These became known as the Judges’ Rules and formed the basis for all subsequent judicial dress. According to Ede & Ravenscroft, who supply them,

‘Today’s High Court Judges wear the same ceremonial dress or black court breeches, black stockings and black patent leather court shoes with cut steel buckles, and scarlet cloth robe as stipulated in the original Judges’ Rules of 1635.’

This is the ‘full fig’ (along with full-bottomed wig) that the judges wear as they troop to the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast to mark the start of the legal year. It is also the apparel in which they are seen in the official photographs used in the popular press, often to accompany stories suggesting they are out of touch with reality.

County court (circuit) judges wear a slightly different gown, edged in lilac instead of red.

What judges wear in court has gone through a number of changes, though. The most recent, in 2008, was not to everyone’s taste. In a survey, the new High Court judge’s robes designed by Betty Jackson were opposed by 40% of the judges who were expected to wear them, and were described by one critic as being like ‘Star Trek’ costumes.

Barristers

In the case of barristers, rules on the type of apparel they could wear date back at least to Elizabethan times. But the current style of gown, made of black cloth or ‘stuff’, dates back to the 18th century. At around the same time wigs started to be worn by judges and barristers purely as a mark of their profession, rather than in accordance with the gentlemanly fashion originally brought over from France with the Restoration of Charles II in the late 17th century. The design of wigs was revolutionised in the early 19th century, when Humphrey Ravenscroft patented new low maintenance white horsehair designs for judges and barristers in the various designs still used today.

Some aspects of court dress continue in purely vestigial form. The Serjeant’s coif persisted after the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875 in the form of an indentation on the top of the judge’s wig. By the Victorian era the judge’s black cornered cap was worn only on formal occasions and, until it was abolished, for the passing of a sentence of death.

The barrister’s gown retains a mysterious flap of cloth hanging from the left shoulder, which was popularly thought to represent the little pocket into which the client or attorney in the olden days would drop the few guineas representing the advocate’s honorarium. But they are actually a vestige of the hood forming part of a black mourning gown worn to mark the death of King Charles II in 1685. Perhaps it was in tribute to the late king’s role in bringing wigs to these shores, that barristers stuck with the mourning gown for another 300 years.

Solicitors

Solicitor advocates also wear gowns, of a slightly different design; and since 2008 have been permitted to wear wigs in the same circumstances as barristers, if they wish: see Practice Direction (Court Dress) (No 4) [2008] 1 WLR 357. Moreover a solicitor can ‘take silk’ and thus wear the same court and ceremonial dress as a barristerial QC.

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