History of Court Dress

The costumes worn by judges are just about the most distinctive working wardrobe in existence. But that’s not altogether surprising: after all, not many uniforms have had seven centuries to evolve…

When robes and wigs weren’t traditional

Strange as it might seem now, when judges first started wearing robes and wigs they probably wouldn’t have stood out on the street.

The costume of a High Court Judge, for example – a long robe, a full hood with a cowl covering the shoulders and a mantle (or cloak) – was more or less established by the time of Edward III (1327-77) and was based on the correct dress for attending the royal court.

The material for these robes was originally given to judges as a grant from the Crown, and included ermine and taffeta or silk. The colours were violet for winter and green in summer, with scarlet for best, but the last mention of green robes dates back to 1534.

In 1635 the definitive guide to court dress was published in the Judges’ Rules. But this didn’t introduce new costumes; it just set out what existing robes should be worn, and when.

So after 1635, the correctly-dressed judge would have worn a black robe faced with miniver (a light-coloured fur) in winter, and violet or scarlet robes, faced with shot-pink taffeta, in summer. A black girdle, or cincture, was worn with all robes.

Breaking the rules?

Not that these guidelines made the matter of correct court dress simple.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the rules of 1635 were not being stuck to as strictly as the author might have hoped.

A less formal version of the robes – a scarlet robe, black scarf and scarlet casting-hood (also known as a tippet or stole) – was used for criminal trials, and for civil trials some judges had begun to wear a black silk gown.

When sitting in Westminster Hall – at the time the home of the courts of law – the mantle was not worn; this was now saved for ceremonial wear. And grey taffeta was becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to the pink taffeta used on summer robes.

Plain linen bands began to be worn at the neck, in place of the ruffs associated with Queen Elizabeth I. These were originally wide collars, but by the 1680s had become what we see today: 2 rectangles of linen, tied at the throat.

Bands are still usually worn with a winged collar, rather than the turn-down collar seen on a typical shirt today.

New courts, new codes

Sometimes changes to the court structure itself have had a major effect on what is worn by judges.

The High Court, for example, was created by the Judicature Acts of 1873-5, absorbing the courts of Chancery, Admiralty, Probate and Matrimonial Causes. This led to a new dress dilemma; trial judges in these courts were used to wearing plain black silk gowns.

These judges were allowed to keep the dress code they were used to, and even today, black silk gowns are worn by judges in the Chancery, Probate, Admiralty, Divorce and Family Divisions.

When County Courts were created in 1846, the black gown was also worn. However, in 1915 Judge Woodfall suggested that a new robe – similar to those worn by High Court judges – be introduced.

A violet robe was chosen, faced – to distinguish it from the violet High Court robe – in lilac or mauve taffeta. A lilac tippet and black girdle also formed part of the costume, which due to wartime conditions did not become compulsory until 1919.

A full violet hood for ceremonial occasions was added in 1937, and the creation of the Crown Court in 1971 led to the introduction of a scarlet tippet, to be worn during criminal trials.

However, this was not compulsory; judges could choose to wear a black gown instead. Judges at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) still wear their black gowns.

The Court of Appeal was created at the same time as the High Court, again combining several existing courts. The Master of the Rolls (head of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal) and two other members of the Court of Appeal in Chancery were among the new members of this court – which probably explains why a black silk gown was chosen.

The Court of Criminal Appeal, founded in 1908, originally wore the full black, scarlet or violet robes and regalia, but in 1966 the court was abolished and re-formed as the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). At this point, judges of this court adopted the black silk gown, with the King’s Bench Division following suit soon afterwards.

Dress at the top

Elaborate robes of black flowered silk damask, with gold lace and decorations, have been worn by the two senior Chancery judges – the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chancellor – for ceremonial occasions since the 17th century.

After the Judicature Acts, the same dress was adopted by the Lords Justices of Appeal and the President of the Family Division.

These robes cover an equally ornate suit, including a swallow-tail coat, waistcoat and knee breaches, silk stockings and patent leather pumps with buckles. This would have been ordinary dress in the 18th century.

Wigs: Following Fashion

Until the 17th century, lawyers were expected to appear in court with clean, short hair and beards.

Wigs made their first appearance in a courtroom purely and simply because that’s what was being worn outside it; the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) made wigs essential wear for polite society.

The judiciary, however, took some time to convince; portraits of judges from the early 1680s still show judges defiantly sporting their own natural hair, and wigs do not seem to have been adopted wholesale until 1685.

The reign of George III (1760-1820) saw wigs gradually go out of fashion. By the end of the century they were mainly worn by bishops, coachmen and the legal profession – and even bishops were given permission to stop wearing wigs in the 1830s.

Judges wore only full-bottomed wigs until the 1780s, when the less formal, and smaller, bob-wig, with frizzed sides rather than curls, and a short tail or queue at the back, was adopted for civil trials.

The full-bottomed wig continued to be used for criminal trials until the 1840s, but is today reserved for ceremonial dress; smaller wigs are used on a day-to-day basis