Quintessentially British: Barristers Wigs

Men in wigs typically means one of two things: you’re at the panto, or high court. For those in the high court (naughty, naughty!), I’m sure we all hold a similar stereotypical perception of a barrister and the clothes he’s donning. You just have to watch any legal drama to develop the stereotype; me? I got mine from Silk. Think Judge. I’m betting you imagine a middle-aged male, black flowing cape, slightly greying hair peeking out sweatily from underneath… yes, the most significant other factor of this scene: his white curly wig.

Barristers still wear these wigs today, a tradition centuries old, stemming from the 1680’s. It’s no secret that as Brits, we are proud of every aspect that allows us to be viewed as a respectable and generally ‘together’ bunch of people. Who wouldn’t want to be known as utterly unflappable? It makes sense that we like to keep things traditional. Considering the grotesque nature of these particular wigs; typically itchy, lice-infested headpieces, it has been called into question why they remain in the Courts.

So where does this long standing British tradition come from? Well, ironically enough, wigs first made an appearance in the Courts as a fashion statement. Before this causes confusion, I must swiftly assure you that barristers were not viewed as trendsetters in the 17th century! Wigs had been about for a few years, but were made popular by the exuberant King Charles II. As this fad caught on among men all over town, wigs became an elaborate means of showcasing wealth and status. They were expensive to make and hair hard to find (grimly, much of it came from horses’ tails or cut off the patients at lunatic asylums… sometimes even stolen off corpses). The trend soon died out of public life, yet remained in the Courts. Why is this? Perhaps Professor Charles Yablon hit the nail on the head when he suggested the only reason barristers still wear wigs is “because nobody has ever told them to stop”. Sometimes the answer is the one staring you right in the face, isn’t it!

As for the practicalities of the wigs, it is thought that they eliminate the sense of hierarchy. A barrister of 7 years dresses exactly the same as a barrister of 7 months. So oddly, though the wigs seem to imbue judges with more power than us common potential-criminal classes, they set all judges on the same footing, acting as a deterrent against the jury voting in favour of the most experienced barrister in a case, and being swayed by the suggestion that his experience grants him better knowledge. They also add a level of anonymity to the barristers. By all wearing the same robes and head gear, no one could (theoretically) be singled out by the accused criminals. Of course when you think about this logically… Well, it become a bit silly. A wig is no mask, and any criminal worth his salt and hell-bent on a vicious revenge could easily remember a face; but they work sufficiently to legitimise the barristers voice as the voice of the entire law court, and not of an individual. Its purpose is similar to that of a school uniform… Just one which has been neglected for a century or two!

As it turns out, the impracticalities of the wigs appear to outweigh the longstanding tradition, and it’s on its way out. Having started out in almost every court, the lavish robes and striking wigs have been reduced to only cases of the criminal court. A number of barristers themselves hold strong opinions against the use of the wigs. A junior barrister said a sweet goodbye to her career as she listed her robes and wig on e-bay in the hopes of “debt-repayment and career-counselling”. It seems the price you pay for a vintage head of immaculate curls far surpasses its actual use and relevance.

There is a strange parallel running through the reception of the wigs. They promote a sense of seniority, classical professionalism and class. Yet at the same time, they are laughable, outdated and a neglected piece of uniform which places the wearer in much discomfort. It hardly seems worth banishing this rule when it’s already long past it’s so-called sell by date. So for all in favour of leaving the Judges in gross discomfort and maintaining British custom, say ‘Aye’!

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