The Wig And Gown: Is It Time To Get Rid Of Our Colonial Relics?

March 16, 20210

In many jurisdictions around the world, the legal profession has become synonymous with the wig and gown.

Court dress comprises apparel such as the wig and gown, robes, collars, collarets, and bibs.

It seems the judiciary is hell-bent on clinging to colonial traditions and rituals. There is a reluctance to jettison irrational customs such as wearing a wig and gown in a tropical climate and asking female lawyers to announce their relationship status to all and sundry.

And why haven’t we seen much AI in legal practice? It is because learned fellows are afraid of change and the repercussions of a technological revolution.

Gowns were a popular form of dressing for most people in Europe in the 17th century.

All over the world, different countries and jurisdictions have court dress prescribed for those in the legal profession.

Early History of the Wig and Gown.

Monarchs were initially responsible for setting down the rules on the proper legal dress for the judiciary. The particular style adopted depended on the preference of the particular monarch at the time.

The dress worn by legal practitioners both at the bar and the bench has been influenced by many factors such as:

  • Ecclesiastes, 
  • Monarchs, 
  • The church, 
  • The weather, and 
  • Popular culture.

The Gown.

There are many versions of the origin of the gown as a dress for those in the legal profession.

According to one version of history, it was after the death of King Charles II in 1685, when people wore black gowns to mourn their dead monarch, that the gown was adopted as a legal dress.

Others believe that the black robe was adopted after the mourning period for Queen Mary II in 1694, and lawyers started to wear it to reflect the solemn nature of the profession.

Another historical account has it that the judge’s wig and lawyer’s robes were adopted as legal attire in 1625, after the publication of an academic paper titled “The Discourse on Robes and Apparel”.

The wearing of wigs and gowns became the rule and those who did not wear them were not granted an audience in court.

The Wig.

Before the wig, judges and lawyers appeared in court with their natural short hair and beards.

The wig in the 18th Century was a common fashion worn by most noblemen and gentlemen of that time.

Some say the tradition was popularized by King Louis XIV of France in the 17th Century, who adopted wearing the wig to cover his receding hairline. Back in the 17th century, balding was seen as a symptom of syphilis. The wearing of the wig was soon adopted by the rest of Europe.

The wearing of wigs fell out of fashion with the public sometime in the middle 18th century. But lawyers have continued to wear wigs till today.

Are Wig and Gown still relevant?

The debate on the relevance of judicial apparel did not start today. Lord Campbell had once referred to the robes as a grotesque ornament fit only for an African chief. 

Lord Campbell had wondered how those judicial dresses are considered indispensable and necessary in the administration of justice.

That controversy on the necessity of wigs and gowns to the legal profession has continued to rage till this day.

This debate has led to many reforms leading to the abolishment of wigs and gowns in many jurisdictions.

The wearing of wigs and gowns has since been modified or largely jettisoned in the UK, except for ceremonial occasions. 

In the US, only the judges wear a legal costume. The judges however do not wear wigs or collars.

Those Advocating for the Wig and Gown.

Those in support of the wearing of wigs and gowns advance the following arguments in support.

  • They bring formality to legal proceedings – One of the most common arguments in support of wigs and gowns is that it brings a sense of formality and solemnity to legal proceedings. 
  • The wig and gown show the rich history of the Law – By wearing a gown and wig, a lawyer represents the rich history of common law and the supremacy of the law over the proceedings. 
  • They bring dignity and formality to legal proceedings – The wig and gown remind the public of the dignity and gravity of the law. It brings sanity and decorum into the court.
  • Wigs and gowns show the impartiality of the judicial system.
  • There have also been arguments that wearing a wig allows a visual separation between the law and those before it.
  • They distinguish legal practitioners – The wig and gown have been used since the 16th century to distinguish judges and lawyers from other members of the society.
  • They are used to cover, age and gender differences – The wig and gown bring equality to the legal profession and are used to disguise the gender and age differences of lawyers in court.
  • Wigs and gowns give respect and satisfaction to lawyers – The wig and gown create a sense of camaraderie and professionalism among legal practitioners. 
  • They show the authority and solemnity of the law – The wig and gown symbolize the objectivity of the law.

Those Opposing the Wig and Gown.

Those against the continued wearing of wigs and gowns give the following reasons.

  • They are used for segregation – The wig and gown is nothing but a symbol of status and power to make some people feel inferior.
  • The wig and gown are colonial relics – Some say the wig and gown are symbols of European colonialism used to intimidate and put fear in the colonized. 
  • They are uncomfortable – The wig and gown are uncomfortable especially in hot weather and regions. Many judges who can’t bear the heat usually remove their wigs and gown and ask lawyers to do the same.
  • They are Anachronistic – The wig and gown make legal practitioners appear superhuman and out of touch with reality.
  • The wig and gown are only about tradition and symbolism – They are only about preserving an age-old tradition.
  • The wig and gown exacerbate differences in age at the bar – The wig and gown are used to create differences among members of the legal profession. Senior and elite members of the bar wear a different kind of wig and gown to differentiate themselves from the rest.
  • The wig and gown make some lawyers look unkempt – Many lawyers come to court with torn wigs and gowns just to show that they are old at the bar.

Final thoughts on Wigs and Gowns.

Many jurisdictions have reformed their legal dressing and moved away from the tradition of the wig and gown.

In the United States, legal dresses for judicial officers have been greatly reformed to reflect simplicity.

Our judiciary must try to discard useless court dresses that do not add anything to actual legal practice.

In the United Kingdom, the judges at the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council did not wear wigs and gowns. Since the creation of the Supreme Court, the justices have also refused to wear wigs and gowns. For lawyers, wigs and gowns are not a requirement for court appearances in the high courts or the Supreme Court anymore. But wigs are still worn during criminal cases.

The originators of the legal dress of the wig and gown were influenced by factors such as religion, fashion, and weather.

Although old habits die hard, our decision to retain the wig and gown must be guided by current realities and not aged traditions.

Like some people have pointed out, there is nothing that shows that judges who wear wigs and gowns are better than those who do not. Or that lawyers who do not wear wigs and gowns are inferior to those who adorn them.

If the adornment of the wig and gown does not contribute to the actual administration of justice, or to good legal practice, then what’s the point in wearing them?

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