Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Judging Dress

After some absence, The Sybarite has returned and, in A Love Supreme, he weighs in on the very important matter of judicial dress.

I am, it will surprise no-one to know, deeply traditionalist in such matters. I can see the argument for discarding formal court attire in cases involving children, who might be intimidated by wigs and gowns (as a child, I myself would have been as happy as a pig in the proverbial). But I feel strongly that “work clothes”, whether worn by judges, barristers, politicians or clerks in Parliament, are important. They are part of the persona. You are not Alf Bloggs, you are Mr Justice Bloggs and you are performing an important public role. When you put on the clothes, you put on the role. Of course, I am fighting a rearguard action here – I know that the tide of public opinion is against me. If the clerks at the Table in the House of Commons still wear wigs in ten years’ time, I will be (pleasantly) surprised.

As the Supreme Court was set up in the modish New Labour years, it was inevitable they would dispense with much of the ceremonial. The Justices wear lounge suits to hear cases, though I think in some cases the barristers still wear wigs and gowns. The one concession has been the black-and-gold gowns which the Justices don for special occasions. These are fine so far as they go – and, as observed above, Lady Hale of Richmond likes to accessorise hers with a Tudor bonnet – though they bear on the back the badge of the Supreme Court, which I think looks a bit tacky and smacks of footballers’ names and numbers on the back of their shirts. But they also look a bit odd worn over lounge suits or equivalent. At least successive Lord Chancellors since the role was recast by Blair have retained formal court dress for high and holy days. Mind you, the current occupant, Miss Truss, does look a bit like the principal boy in a pantomime when she wears knee breeches. But fair play to her for continuing to wear the traditional robes, even if the full-bottomed wig seems now to have gone the way of the dodo.

It could be worse. The Supreme Court Justices could wear ghastly zip-up gowns like their American counterparts – you just know they’re made of nylon – over their suits, though I have some time for Justice Ginsberg for adding a lace jabot to tidy up her garb a little. But ceremonial is something that Britain does so well. The Supreme Court could have looked so much better with Justices in gowns and traditional judicial clothing. A wig here and there wouldn’t go amiss.

I couldn’t agree more. Especially on the matter of the badge of the Supreme Court on the back on the gowns, which is simply naff. (See image below.)

But why do the justices of the Supreme Court have (what I think of as) chancellorial gowns anyhow? What is the origin of this style of black-and-gold gown? Did it start with the Lord Chancellor and spread to the Speaker or vice versa? Or have some species of judge always worn chancellorial gowns? The chancellors of universities have likewise adopted it, though its precise form varies from institution to institution, as one might expect in matters of academic dress.

Incidentally, I was speaking with Bob Geldof the other day about Senator W. B. Yeats, about whom Mr Geldof has done a documentary. As we were discussing Yeats’ contribution to the Irish Senate, Mr Geldof mentioned that Yeats had been in discussions with Hugh Kennedy, the Chief Justice of the Irish Free State, about introducing new designs for Irish judicial dress. The results, according to just about everyone, left much to be desired and so the British tradition carried on for the most part. As is so often the case, doing nothing is the least bad option.

This post was published on Thursday, December 8th, 2016 11:20 am. It has been categorised under Great Britain History Tradition and been tagged under , , .
L G Clark
8 Dec 2016 7:22 pm

As a creature of the Blair regime, the wretched thing should simply be abolished.
But as Evelyn Waugh once observed. the Tory Party never turns the clock back a single second.

11 Dec 2016 8:44 pm

My understanding is that the lack of robes and whigs is a continuation of the long-standing practice of the law lords before they left the House of Lords. I suppose, however, that there is an argument to be made that this should have changed completely with the transformation of the Lords of Appeal into a more regular court.

I have also heard it a number of times said that the new practice for the Lord Chancellor is to don the whig only when the incumbent has a background in the legal profession, though I’m sure that this is just an excuse and will not long be followed (indeed, it has already been broken by Jack Straw, who did not wear the whig for most of his tenure, though Ken Clarke did wear it).

12 Dec 2016 2:26 am

To answer your question, I have mostly seen Court of Appeal judges wear black-and-gold chancellorial gowns, while High Court judges wear the red-and-white robes. But I have also seen the Lord Chief Justice, who presides over the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, wear the red robes. Wikipedia seems to confirm: and also notes “The use of plain black gowns in the Court of Appeal dates from the origin of the Court in the 1870s, when it was populated by Chancery judges who were accustomed to this form of dress.”

These are, of course, the most formal versions of court dress, nowadays reserved for occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament and the Lord Chancellor’s breakfast. For criminal cases a simpler version is worn, with a bench wig (the full-bottomed wig has not seen regular use since some point in the 19th century). For civil cases, proper court dress has recently been usurped entirely and replaced by this ridiculous design ( with no whig.

J.J.McCullough has an interesting album with court dress from around the world, including a number of other countries whose chief justices wear chancellorial gowns:

12 Dec 2016 2:30 am

Oh, and this is the website wikipedia cites, which has more information:

Valeria Kondratiev
30 May 2017 8:27 pm

I hope the British never give up their court dress, wig and all. I’ve always loved seeing them in all the British crime shows as well as Rumpole.

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