The British legal profession and its wigs

Retirementally Challenged wants to know why British lawyers wear wigs in court. Her exact question involved the words “stupid white-haired wigs.”

Since I am (a) not a lawyer, (b) not, at least at the moment, a defendant, and (c) a galvanized rather than born-and-raised Brit, I’m the obvious person to answer this question.

In case you’ve never been in a British court and haven’t watched the right mix of TV shows, I should stop to tell you that in at least some courts British lawyers and judges both wear the most bizarre white wigs you’re likely to find outside (or inside, now that I stop to think about it) of a costume shop. They stand up in court looking as if some evil-haired little white critter had curled up on their heads and died there, and not one of them gets the giggles. You’d think one look at each other and they’d go to pieces.

North Cornwall.

Vaguely related photo: A neighbor’s holly makes a break for freedom.

My first-hand experience with the wigs is limited. When Wild Thing and I had to were told to leave Britain and had to appeal, the hearing was what our barrister called informal, which meant wigless. Informal or not, it was still pretty intimidating.

The only other brush I had with wigs was when we were buying our house. Our solicitor (that’s the wigless half of the legal profession, which comes in two flavors in the U.K.) was tolerant enough to keep working with us even though Wild Thing regularly announced that as long as we were doing legal business she wanted to see the wig. (When he told us about stamp tax on the house, she reminded him that we’d fought a revolution over that. We still had to pay, but I was tempted to throw a teabag in the Bude harbor as a sort of memorial protest.

According to the humorless government web site on the subject of legal wigs (yes, folks, someone felt it necessary to create one), what a High Court judge wears was established by the time of Edward III (1327-1377). King Eddie gave the judges the material for their robes, and the style was based on what was worn in the king’s (as opposed to the judges’) court at the time.

In 1635, what judges wore wasn’t changed but it was codified, because—be serious, can’t you?—it was painfully important to get it all right. After that, the standard uniform changed in various and boring ways at various and unimportant times.

How interesting, you say, suppressing a yawn, but what about the wigs?

They were introduced during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), who wasn’t called Charles the Vain but could have been. The judges took some convincing before they all agreed to wear them, but eventually they caved. I mean challenging the king of a topic of that much importance? That’s risky.

By the reign of George III (1760-1820), wigs were going out of style but still had to be worn by bishops, coachmen, and the legal profession. Now that, friends, is a bizarre combination of professions, and I can’t tell you who enforced the rule, but I do wonder.

Bishops eventually got permission (from who? I dunno) to stop wearing them. Then coaches met the internal combustion engine, and if coachmen hadn’t already gotten permission to burn their wigs it all became irrelevant because the profession disappeared. I’ve been a cab driver, which is close enough to a coachman, and you can trust me on this: You won’t find many cab drivers wearing white wigs.

And those short, curled wiglets that judges and barristers wear today—the ones that don’t cover all their hair? (A barrister, by the way, is the other half of the legal profession—the half that appears in court.) They were adopted around the 1780s “for civil trials” and probably felt like a liberation from the full-scale wigs that came before them. Today, the full wig is only used on ceremonial occasions, of which—this being Britain—there are probably many.

Barrister Harry Mount reports that the wigs are “Itchy, ludicrously expensive and dirty—barristers hold on to the same one for their whole career—they’re also extremely hot.”

But eliminating them entirely? Not going to happen. Civilization in the questionable form in which we know it would come to a crashing end.

So there you have it: the history of the legal wig. What else would you like to know, either about Britain or the U.S.? I’ll answer any question that tickles my fancy, regardless of how unqualified I am.

61 thoughts on “The British legal profession and its wigs

  1. I saw the question posed in the comments on the other post, and almost answered it, but then I decided to just keep my big American mouth shut, but I’m glad you delved into the depths and explored the issue here. Good stuff.

    Court dress, like the monarchy, like those stubborn nobles who cling to their titles even though it’s been centuries since the family had a pot or a window (I’m not sure if that’s an expression in the UK, but I’m leaving out the vulgarity for your readers to fill in, but now I’m thinking they’re probably too classy to even know the saying)–don’t you think all of it reveals a culture that is bound up in nostalgia? My editorial opinion is probably revealed by the selection of the word “nostalgia” as opposed to, say, history or tradition. And that “bound” part, too. ;)

    So I tried to think if we Americans wear any weird “ceremonial” clothes–I came up with two examples: the Surgeon General, who continues to sport a military uniform, and major league baseball managers, who still suit up like a player on the team, even though they’re mostly old guys whose backs would give out if they tried to bend over and field a ground ball.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Many pieces to respond to here. I like the question about what ceremonial clothes Americans come up with. What jumped into my mind are the various was re-enacters, who show up in uniforms, and the Tea Party people who’d show up dressed in some wild guess at a colonial-era getup. But that’s probably a different category of dated clothing.

      As for pots and windows, I’ve never heard the expression used in the U.K. I never heard it in New York either, although maybe other people have; I had to move to the Midwest for that. But since it’s one of our clearer and more vivid sayings, and in the interests of intercultural understanding, I think we need to introduce it in full: What Karen’s saying is that they don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Why *do* American judges wear gowns? Surely it can’t be to keep themseves warm in the extreme cold of courtroom air-conditioning?

        And presumably Native Americans do not wear feathers to keep warm, either?

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        • The impulse to dress up seems to run deep in the human race, as does the habit of thinking our clothes make us into something a bit other, or more, than what we’d be without them. There’s a thin line, though, between–let’s say majesty for example–and absurdity, and it’s very much a matter of opinion as to which side a costume puts a person on.

          As for Native Americans, as I’m sure you know, feathers are strictly ceremonial–people really don’t wear them on a regular basis, and I’m not sure if all the tribes actually use them.

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    • Americans still wear cap and gown to high school and college graduations. Including academic hoods at the college level. I believe those are versions of the clothing worn by medieval scholars. And our judges, while they have dispensed with the wigs, still wear robes.

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      • You’re right. I didn’t think of graduation ceremonies. It’s another example of things your used to going invisible. I’ve read that graduations ceremonies–cap, gown, and the whole shebang–are reaching down to younger and younger kids, although I don’t know if they’re at all common.

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  2. I don’t think us Brits are “bound up in nostalgia”, merely that we are proud of our traditions and see no reason to end them! As for the expression, we do say “hadn’t a pot to p… in”, but yes, only the most vulgar of us would use such language! Great post – often we don’t give much of a thought to ancient traditions that go on around us!

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    • The traditions we’re used to do tend to be invisible. It took Ubi Dubium to remind me that American graduates regularly dress up in cap and gown. I’m so used to that, I can’t see it.

      As for our vulgar saying, for me it’s the addition of the window that takes it to the level of true memorability.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, absolutely.

          A long time ago, in a city far away, I got myself arrested in a civil rights demonstration (this must’ve been 1964, or possibly ’63), which involved a series of farcical court appearances that I really should write about some day. I’m trying desperately to remember whether the judge wore a gown (and I can’t help picturing some strapless thing with a full skirt when I read or type that word, or hear it in my head). I’m fairly sure he did.

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  3. I love these posts.
    Do the Brits eat anything like an American biscuit? I know that our cookies are their biscuits, but this doesn’t explain what our biscuits are to them. I tried once, to communicate this with a Brit, but all he could come up with was a scone. As you know, a scone is not a biscuit on either side of the pond.

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    • A scone’s as close as you’re going to get over here. Some are called savory (okay, savoury) scones, made with cheese or occasionally some other not-sweet ingredient. But I’ve never seen them served with a meal–they’re more along the lines of a snack. So in my experience, no: no biscuits. I made what I’ve learned to call baking-powder biscuits fairly often when we have people over for supper, and people like them but the first time around they take some explaining, as in, no, it’s a bread. Really. Not a scone. Put butter on it. Or dip it in your gravy.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Hilarious. Reminded me of a British TV legal drama episode of either The Brief or Judge John Deed in which The Wig is lost, another of the correct size must be found or the legal process will grind to a halt. An ill-fitting, dirty one is finally located and plopped upon the head with much distaste and some humor. Of course, looks,comments and shaming occur in the courtroom. This was all a revelation to me. Of course, we still have those silly mortarboards we wear for graduation (not to mention the cheap, wrinkled faux gowns). I remember mine would not stay on at my 1966 college graduation because I’d had my hair done which meant it was an impenetrable giant helmet. We bobby pinned and hat pinned the thing but soon the board would just creep up and up until it was perched airily on top of the helmet. Aarrgghh! At least we do less of that kind of thing to ourselves today. I just read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed and was reminded of other clothing requirements not much in use anymore: girdles, pointy bras (although our nipples have gone from sight again in the modern padded bras) and pantyhose. Do British women feel the need to teeter around on high heels in their professional lives?? I always feel a bit sad when I see a woman with future foot problems carefully mincing around in them. Please do explain all the education jargon in the UK, especially this new stuff that sounds like American charter schools. I would love to have that filtered through your perspective.

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    • Whew! Great story about the mortarboard. I skipped my college graduation (which was, in any case, delayed by 12 years, since I’d decided I’d learn more if I quit school–and I suspect I did), so I can’t chime in with my own. And a great story about the wig, while we’re at it. I never stopped to think what would happen if one got lost, or what it takes to keep track of your very own wig. I immediately start imagining people playing pranks on each other–hiding little sparkly butterfly clips in other people’s wigs and waiting for them to be noticed, etc.

      I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer. Especially in this country.

      I’m even less qualified to write about high-heeled shoes than I am about legal wigs, but again, I’ll see what I can learn. I’m dyslexic about fashion, and the last time I wore high heels was in the sixties. I slipped down half a flight of stairs and thought, that’s it, it’s over. And they weren’t even particularly high. I’ve always been afflicted by the illusion that shoes should be comfortable and couldn’t figure out why the high-heeled variety weren’t.

      This is the second question about the education system, which is changing so quickly the teachers are dizzy. It’s on my list.

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      • You were smart to skip the graduation ceremony. Mine was ridiculous and the creeping mortarboard was only a small part of why. I had to sit in the hot sun for a long, long time, then parade up and get that blank piece of paper (not the real deal which came later via snail mail), then listen to some smarty pants tell the mostly older audience how the Class of ’66 would correct the mistakes of the past and Make The World A Better Place-ha! Silly, smug girl!! After that we all turned our flat hats into weapons by tossing them into the air and then we ducked. All this while the dinner for my family burned because of too, too much droning on by the speakers. See what you missed. Today I guess you could secret a smart phone/tablet and a pillow for your bum under the wrinkled gown and entertain yourself quite well while sitting in some comfort but not in 1966.

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  5. If you haven’t already talked about this, I would like to know about beer. Is it indeed served at room temperature in Britain? And is it real beer with hops and lifeforms in it, and not the chemically scrubbed cat piss that passes for beer over here? (I’m not referring to the good stuff one can get from a microbrewery, of course, but the stuff sold in supermarkets.) What about alcohol content? … I’m pretty sure it’s lower here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is going to take some serious research, because I haven’t drunk alcohol in so long that I can’t remember if beer’s a liquid or a solid. But since we’ve established that I don’t have to be remotely competent to write about a subject, I’ll ask around.

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      • I’m not particularly a beer drinker myself, but it’s one of those “timeless truths” – British beer is warm. Plus, pubs are the heart of social life – yes? No? Do you have to drink like Andy Capp to enjoy a pub?

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        • Pubs are a social center. And pubs are closing all over the country. Both true. Pubs are also a place to eat. It wouldn’t be totally bizarre to walk into a pub and ask for tea, or lemonade. It might depend on the pub, though. Once a week, I go to a pub in a neighboring village for the singers’ night, and I do get teased a bit about drinking water, but that didn’t start until I’d been there long enough to part of the group.

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  6. I am so honored to have someone as uniquely inexperienced and unqualified as you answer my question about those silly wigs. There is something so charmingly British about the tradition, yet completely crazy too. I assume that, when the tradition was started, they didn’t imagine a world with female barristers. The wigs are bad enough on the men, but the women who sport them look downright batty.

    I owe about 3/4ths of my ancestry to the British so perhaps I can blame that for any questionable wardrobe choices I make.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love being described as “uniquely inexperienced and unqualified.” I’m floating above my computer chair as I struggle to type.

      I don’t have an ounce (or I guess these days it’d be a gram) of traceable British heritage, so I’m not sure who to blame my wardrobe on. But if you’re drawn to strange wigs, then yes, I guess it has to be genetic.

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