The stark black robes and white wigs worn in courtrooms across the UK are now iconic symbols of law. However, the introduction of wigs during the 17th century was entirely circumstantial; they were simply worn because they were fashionable. Below, we explore why the wig is a lasting presence in the legal system.
By Grant Longstaff. Published 25 April 2023.
What did barristers wear before wigs?
Before wigs were introduced the only requirement for lawyers was to have neatly trimmed hair and beards. But this was all set to change in the 1600s.
When did barristers start wearing wigs?
Originating in Europe, wigs became a popular fashion item in the UK during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685), especially among the upper classes and aristocracy of the time. The wig was seen as a symbol of authority, and lawyers would wear their wigs in the courtroom, as well as outside of it, to show their status and power. Despite evidence suggesting some lawyers were hesitant to wear the wigs, by the end of King Charles II’s reign wigs were fully accepted by judges.
A century or so later the popularity of the wig waned, however, the tradition to wear wigs within the legal profession remained and became a formal requirement.
Do barristers still wear wigs?
Wigs are still commonplace in the courtroom, almost thought of as a uniform, to maintain the long tradition and formality of the legal system. However, the wigs have undergone some changes. Originally, the wigs worn in courtrooms were full-bottomed, which would typically extend down past the neck at the back and sides and sit over the shoulders. Now, the full-bottomed wig is only used as ceremonial dress. The wigs most often seen today are bob-style wigs, with much shorter sides all around and featuring a tail at the back.
Samuel March and Hemp & Hemp
Traditionally made from horsehair, there has been a shift in the materials and manufacturing of the wigs worn by judges and barristers to meet the socially and environmentally conscious attitudes of the modern day.
As a vegan, University of Law alumnus Samuel March refused to wear a traditional horsehair wig and set out to make the first plant-based legal wig. He achieved this using hemp. After news of his vegan-friendly wig swept through legal circles, Samuel realised there was a great demand for his eco-friendly wigs and created Hemp & Hemp, which sells custom made wigs for members of the Bar. Now a barrister, Samuel uses any profits generated from the sale of his wigs to support causes aimed at furthering animal protection via the law.
The future of the wig in the courtroom
In 2007 a change in the rules meant barristers no longer needed to wear a wig during civil and family law courts. They are also no longer required in the UK Supreme Court. However, wigs are still a requirement for criminal trials in the UK and, whilst the requirement of wigs in the courtroom seems to be in decline around the world, many law practitioners in the UK still take pride in wearing them.
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