It is often very difficult to change traditional customs and practices. There’s an old English saying that “old habits die hard’’. This is certainly true in the costume of the judges and advocates of Courtrooms around the world.
When we look back to the 17th century, the practice of wearing wigs and robes in England by wealthy people became fashionable during the reign of King Charles II. In France, the fashion of wearing wigs was started by King Louis XIV in order to hide his baldness. The English word “wig” is a short form of the word “periwig” (which derives from the French word “perruque”). In popular English usage, the word big wig” is used informally to refer to an important person.
The need to distinguish judges and lawyers from other professionals and clients was recognized in England as early as 1635, requiring the judges to wear black robes on normal occasions and red robes for special ceremonial events and criminal cases. Even within the profession of barristers, robes were colored according to seniority.
Barristers in France wore colored bell-sleeved gowns with shoulder pieces and chaperons with white bands and stiff black toques. This was in the time of the Ancien Regime, the time of the Imperial Court in France. However, the Ancien Regime fell with the beheading of the King, Louis XVI, the last king of France (1774–92), in the line of Bourbon monarchs preceding the French Revolution of 1789.
It is not recorded whether Louis XVI wore his wig to his beheading, but certainly, that event was the end of wearing wigs by French legal professionals. Napoleon, for example, was most certainly the force behind the formation of the French Republic. He never wore wigs nor did the legal profession in the courts of Napoleonic law.
American judges stopped wearing wigs in the early 19th century. This was to show that the US was republican and democratic. Judges stopped wearing wigs around the same time everyone else stopped wearing fashionable wigs for social occasions.
The fear of appearing too much like a King discouraged George Washington, the first President, legislators who made up the Congress and Senators according to the new US Constitution, adopted in September 1878. The loss of the 1812 War confirmed that the customs and traditions of England would not be transplanted across the Atlantic Ocean.
Fashion trends can be traditionally maintained over centuries. Fashions can also quickly disappear when there are political changes. For example, in the British Raj, for two hundred years the wearing of topi hats and khaki shorts were the uniforms of the administrative state, while wigs and colorful robes were worn by the British in the hottest of India’s courtrooms.
Yet when India became a Republic in 1947, the khaki shorts stayed but the wigs were displaced by turbans and black robes. Today only the black robes remain.
What can be concluded from this glimpse at fashion and its relationship with power and the nature of the State? Those countries that have Kings and Queens tend to favor the most traditional symbols of power.
Republics favor some form of distinction, but a minimalist fashion that identifies the legal profession as a professional but also as an equal citizen with all the other citizens of the Republic. In India, that constitutes the black robe, black pants, and white shirt or blouse.
However, in Great Britain, still ruled by its Queen, if a legal professional practices at a higher level, they need to keep their wig(s) handy.
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