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Beyond Tradition: The Role of Legal Wigs in Modern Legal Practice

by Dominic Chandler
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Legal wigs in UK courts have a long and storied history going back hundreds of years as a symbol of pride and authority over trials. While they are not as relevant in modern legal practice, they still play an important part in how judges and barristers are perceived when court is in session. 

We take a look at the traditions and meaning legal wigs have had over history and how this role has developed and evolved heading into the modern era.

The History of Legal Wigs for British Courts

When wigs first became all the rage in the UK, they weren’t exclusively worn by lawyers in court. 

Wigs first became a traditional part of men’s fashion during the reign of Charles II. It is believed that he wore a wig to cover up syphilis and due to his status as king, the trend of wearing wigs caught on. It was as much a trend of politics as it was of pride in appearance and masking the signs of illness. 

The tradition of wearing wigs is also attributed to Louis XIV who wore wigs to cover up his thinning hair. As wigs became a part of the norm, there was an alleged decrease in cases of head lice as men would have to shave their heads in order for the wigs to fit properly. 

As part of the upper classes in the seventeenth century, lawyers and judges began wearing wigs to court, setting them apart as members of polite society and introducing a brand new symbol of their power and authority as they presided over cases. 

Types of Wig Worn in History

Judge’s wigs, otherwise known as perukes or periwigs were a lot more flamboyant and heavy than modern wigs, due to the full-bottomed style that had been made famous in society. 

Full-bottomed wigs continued to be worn until the 1780’s when the shorter bob-wig came into fashion. This has been attributed to the reign of George III from 1760-1820, when wigs started to fall out of fashion and became a less prominent part of high society, which in turn had a knock on effect in the world of law. 

The shorter wig without the curls became the norm for civil trials while the full-bottomed wig was reserved for criminal trials until the 1840’s when they were retired from active service and simply became a part of ceremonial dress. 

Symbolism and Tradition of Wigs

In court, the wig was primarily used as a status of wealth and power, putting the judge or barrister above the citizens on trial and representing their authority over deciding their fates. 

Formality and respect are significant aspects of attending a trial, allowing the ruling of the judge to be taken seriously so that cases can be trialled smoothly while also encouraging attendees to have more trust in the justice system. 

Wigs also had the unexpected benefit of granting the judge anonymity. By setting themselves apart from others in the court, they could then make their decisions and bring about justice without bias, removing their own emotions and identity in order to judge each case fairly. 

The Tradition of Wig-Making

The role of wigs in court is still as important today as it was in history despite being used less frequently and only being a requirement for ceremonial events and serious criminal trials. 

Making sure wigs are well-crafted is an important part of making sure the power and authority of the judge or barrister is maintained. Wigs would historically be made out of horsehair, though human hair and goat hair were also known to be used. 

The making of modern wigs also uses synthetic fibres while hemp wigs offer a vegan option for those in the law industry who don’t want their wigs to be made from animal hairs.

There will also often be variations in the wig worn depending on the type of court and the seniority of the barrister. This helps to denote the hierarchy within the courtroom and makes it easier to identify the representatives of the law with the most power and authority which can in turn inspire respect and subtly alter the atmosphere of the courtroom during trials. 

  • Barrister wig – often short with curls on the side and a tail down the back. Our wigs are made from either traditional horsehair or vegan plant or synthetic fibres
  • Judge’s bench wig – a short, frizzed wig without curls and with two small tails down the back, made from pure horsehair
  • Judge’s full-bottomed wig – a curled style comes down around the shoulders with a short frizzed top similar to the judge’s bench wig.

Legal Wigs in Modern Court

While wigs fell out of the main fashion trends in the late eighteenth century, the law is still strong in its traditions and the wigs worn in court can help judges and barristers to strike the perfect balance between exuding authority and being approachable and personable. 

While their role is largely ceremonial these days, wigs still command respect in the higher courts. While they are only optional in lower courts such as family law and civil law, they can still act as a symbol of the individual judge’s personal values. They allow lawyers to showcase their pride in the work they’ve undertaken and help them to feel connected to the traditions of their predecessors. 

Wigs will still be worn in high courts such as the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal when they are needed to add a level of formality to events. The types of cases held in these courts include:

  • The final court of appeal for civil cases
  • Criminal cases
  • Cases of public importance
  • Appeals against convictions and sentences from the Crown Court

Modern Symbolism of Legal Wigs

Legal wigs in today’s era still retain much of the symbolism associated with the wigs of old. They help to assist with keeping judge’s anonymous and creating a hierarchy in court that grants them the authority to render their judgement.

Generally though, wigs have largely become ceremonial, losing their association with wealth and social status as times have moved on and becoming instead a physical way for judges and barristers to commemorate the proceedings and honour the history of the law. 

This type of display of power is less necessary now though due to the changing attitudes and opinions between classes. Many judges will forgo wearing wigs in cases that involve children for example, helping them to feel more comfortable as the absence of the wig can help to make the judge to feel and look more human and relatable. 

Contemporary Reforms for Barrister Wigs

These reforms regarding the use of wigs in various courts only really started to take effect in 2007, when reforms were passed ruling that barrister wigs were no longer a requirement for cases concerning civil and family law. 

While the use of barrister gowns and wigs wasn’t abolished, it was no longer a requirement. Judges and barristers could at their own discretion choose whether or not to wear wigs in most cases, allowing the role of wigs to become more concentrated on enforcing power and authority over the more serious criminals in trials. 

Not all criminal trials will require a wig though. The formal wear of the judge remains optional in criminal cases involving children to create a more relaxed and safe environment as they give testimony. 

While falling out of fashion, wigs still hold a relevant role in upholding tradition and allowing judges and barristers to honour the history of their profession, allowing them to take pride in their work and retain the respect of those attending court. 

You can read more about the importance of wigs in our article detailing the types of wigs still worn in court today and you can browse our selection of legal barrister and judge wigs in our Tailor de Jure shop.

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