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History of Legal Dress

British legal dress has a long and rich history of traditions and symbolism. It was developed from the lay dress of the medieval period.

In order to preserve the continuity and dignity of justice, judges and barristers adopted suitable costumes to convey the unchanging status and impartiality of justice in society. Few regulations exist about the development of British legal dress. The principal document is the Judges' Rules of 1635. The rules related to the robes worn by judges but not the dress worn by barristers. The rules only attempted to codify existing judicial dress rather than introduce innovations. The custom of wearing one of the most noted items of legal dress - wigs - dates back to about 3000 bc when nobility wore wigs made from real hair or sheep wool. Henry III of France introduced the fashion for false hair amongst his countrymen. Before the 17th century British lawyers did not wear wigs, but kept their hair and beards moderately short. It was Charles II who introduced wigs into polite society. In 1667 Samuel Pepys wrote: ... "very handsome, and new periwig, make a great show."



In early medieval times, judge's robes didn't follow strict colour and material codes.

In early medieval times, judge's robes didn't follow strict colour and material codes. The only shared aspects were that winter robes were lined with fur and summer robes finished with taffeta. By 1400 judges mostly wore violet robes in winter, green during summer and red for ceremonial occasions.

In 1635, the judges sitting in Westminster issued the Judges' Rules which defined the different types of robe to be worn. These rules formed the basis for all subsequent judicial dress.



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.

The most notable occasion for wearing the full ceremonial dress, including a full-bottomed wig, scarlet cloth robe, hood and mantle, is the first day of Michaelmas term; the start of the legal year. This is when all senior judges attend a special service at Westminster Abbey, followed by the Lord Chancellor's breakfast.

A number of High Court judges also attend the State Opening of Parliament. Additionally they wear ceremonial robes for Red Letter days, including the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, Accession Day, Lord Mayor's Day and a number of Saints' days.



County Courts were established in 1846. Current County Court dress is based on a robe introduced in 1919.

It was originally cut from violet cloth with lilac silk facings and cuffs. It was worn with a lilac-casting hood across the shoulder and a black girdle around the waist. In 1937 a violet hood cloth with lilac facings in the same shape as that used by High Court judges was introduced.

The founding of the Crown Court in 1971 brought in a second casting hood, rich in red, which in criminal cases was replaced by the original lilac-casting hood./p>



In 1635 the Judges' Rules prescribed three layers of head dress: a white lawn coif followed by a black skull cap and black cornered cap.

Charles II introduced the French fashion of wig wearing. By 1680s the judiciary and the bar followed suit. The coif and the skull cap shrunk in size until they were eventually abandoned. The indentation featured on the top of judicial wigs is the last reminder of the coif. By the Victorian era the black cornered cap was worn only on formal occasions. It became associated with passing death sentences.

After 1770 judges wore short bob-wigs for everyday court occasions, with the full-bottomed wig reserved for ceremonial occasions.



During the late 17th and early 18th century legal wigs were produced from black horsehair. This unwieldy material needed constant perfuming and powdering.

Ointments and powder damaged clothes. To protect expensive robes, the tails of short wigs were often tied into a black bag. Today the 'dress bag' or 'rosette', forms part of the judges and Queen's Counsel ceremonial dress.

To reduce the constant need to maintain wigs, Humphrey Ravenscroft patented a wig made of white horsehair. It eliminated frizzing, curling and powdering. Patented in 1822, it remains the model for modern barristers' wigs. Ten years after perfecting the white horsehair wig, Humphrey formerly introduced the low-maintenance forensic full-bottomed wig which is still supplied by Ede and Ravenscroft.



In 1604, His Majesty King James I introduced the rank of King's Counsel to the Bar. It was highly coveted.

To hold the title a person had to be both one of the leaders of the Bar as well as favoured by no less than the King and his court.

King's Counsel barristers wore a fine uniform of black silk robes in Tudor style, with a cape collar and hanging panel sleeves decorated with black silk tufts and black lace. By the early 18th century the design was used as a ceremonial robe. The outfit is still worn today.

Today's Queen's Counsel is an equally prestigious title held by leading Barristers. Queen's Counsel wears the Tudor black silk robe, over a court coat, waistcoat. Breeches and a lace stock. New Queen's Counsels are appointed on Maundy Thursday each year. They are sworn in on the first day of Easter term by the Lord Chancellor in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords.



In the early days, if a judge felt that a Junior Barrister was inappropriately dressed, he could refuse to hear a legal submission.

This moved Barristers to smarten their appearance. Barristers adopted the wig at the same time as judges in the 1680s. Today's black Barrister gowns date back to 1685 and the death of King Charles II. Upon his death the entire Bar went into mourning, donning a black cloth robe with wide, open sleeves and stylised hood over the left shoulder. The mourning period is long gone but the fashion remains. The 'bag' at the back of the Barrister's gown is not - as popularly thought - for legal fees, but has its roots to a mourning hood, similar in style to an academic hood.