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.