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The Evolution of Judge Attire: From Tradition to Modernity

by Dominic Chandler
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From the fourteenth century to the modern age, judge attire has been a steady, traditional staple of courts. Whether it borrows its roots from classic church wear or is adopted from royal customs, the robes and wigs transcend generations and keep the court in line with the contemporary cultures and customs of historic England. 

In this article, we will look at how judge attire has evolved from its earliest beginnings, taking note of what has changed with the times and what has stayed the same all these years. 

The 14th Century – The Beginnings of Judicial Attire

The customary clothing of judges dates back to as early as the fourteenth century and the reign of Edward III. During the 1300’s judges would wear similar attire to the Serjeants-at-law. This included a long robe, a hood, a tabard and a coif.

Serjeants-at-law were members of an order of barristers in England and Ireland and were prominent leaders in the legal profession. At the time of the 13th and 14th centuries, Serjeants were the highest order of the law until the 17th century. 

Eventually, by the time the beginning of the 15th century rolled around, the tabard in judicial wear was replaced with the more traditional mantle or cloak.

The outfits worn by judges during this time would have been in line with the standard dress for attendees of the royal court, allowing judges to showcase their status and authority within their position. 

The judicial attire would have been made from a range of materials including ermine, taffeta and silk. These materials were rare and expensive, highlighting the influence of the monarchy. Taffeta for example was incredibly luxurious, a crisp fabric made from silk. 

Attire would have come in a range of colours, including violet in the winter, green in the summer and red for special days. While violet and green are less widely used in the modern era, red is still donned for ceremonial occasions. 

The 17th Century – Wigs, Bands and the Judge’s Rules

In 1635, the Judge’s Rules were formed in Westminster. These rules dedicated the type of robe each judge should wear and when, creating a guideline for the future of judicial clothing. Items included in the Judge’s Rules included:

  • The coif originating with the Serjeants-at-law in the 14th century
  • The black skull cap 
  • The pileus quadratus from the reign of Henry VIII: a soft 4-cornered black hat

The 17th century meanwhile, brought in a whole new precedent for headwear in court to carve out a new tradition for judges: wigs. 

The powdered wigs famously associated with the law were believed to have been brought over to England by Charles II who had been inspired by the French king Louis XIV. Like his father before him, Louis started losing his hair early on in life and wore wigs to disguise the loss. 

Charles II himself suffered from his hair prematurely greying, believed to be a sign of syphilis and he began the trend of wig-wearing throughout England. Judges therefore wore them as a sign of their status and power – being made out of human hair and horsehair, wigs weren’t cheap to make or maintain, turning them into a sign of the wealthy ruling elite. 

These days, they can also be made out of sheeps’ wool, goats’ wool and synthetic fibres though they are implemented sparingly in court. They have become like relics of tradition with many viewing them as outdated. 

Advocate Bands

Another element of judicial wear introduced in the 17th century is the advocate band. They first appeared when the Elizabethan trend of neck ruffs died out to be replaced by strips of plain linen. 

While they are mostly ceremonial now, they were first introduced in 1640 and were comprised of two rectangles said to represent the two tablets of Moses from the Old Testament. 

These tablets are known as either the ‘Tablets of the Laws’ or the ‘Tablets of Stone’. They are said to be what Moses used to write the ten commandments on when he went to commune with God on Mount Sinai. 

This is merely one clear example of the influence of religion on the law and on judicial dress in history. Nowadays, with the modernisation of judge attire and the progression on from these traditions, the connection with religion is fading somewhat with the Christian aspects of judicial dress taking on a largely ceremonial role. 

The 19th Century – Black Gowns and the Detachable Collar

The 1800’s saw a number of notable developments to court clothing. Full bottomed wigs had already fallen out of fashion by this point though smaller wigs such as bob-wigs with short tails were still used in civil trials. 

Black gowns were already in the height of their popularity, having become a staple as a symbol of mourning after the death of Charles II. New courts appearing in the century such as the Court of Appeal adopted the plain black gown as the Chancery judges in the court had become accustomed to this particular fashion. 

One of the most significant developments of the century though involved the invention of the detachable collar, still worn by barristers in court today for the convenience of it. The idea is said to have been sparked by Hannah Montague in 1827 who is alleged to have cut off her husband’s collars to wash them before sewing them back on. 

The stiffness of this style of collar is well suited to the stature and formality of a judge. The Reverend Ebenazar Brown took this idea and ran with it, triggering the mass manufacture of the detachable collar, kickstarting a whole new fashion trend and shaping a not insignificant part of the future of judge attire. 

The 20th Century – New Traditions and Female Judges

With the introduction of a number of new traditions throughout the 20th century, it is easy to see how the original popular trends from the years of Charles II begin to fade into obscurity.

Circuit judges in the County Courts and Crown Court began to wear violet edged with lilac trim in 1915, with a matching hood on ceremonial occasions. This was put into motion by Judge Woodfall but due to the war, some elements of the new dress for the County Court weren’t compulsory till 1919 such as the lilac tippet. 

The County Courts were originally formed in 1846 with the classic black robe as part of their uniform while the current Crown Court wasn’t established until the 1 January 1972 where a scarlet tippet would be worn for criminal trials. 

Of course, many new outfits were not compulsory so judges had the freedom to continue wearing the basic black while in session. 

Similarly, the judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal, founded in 1908, would have the option of wearing black robes, red robes or violet robes. With its new identity in 1966 as the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), the judges simply wear the classic black. 

Female Judges and Barristers

The 1900’s also saw women start to emerge as members of the court and with them, they brought all new conversations about the traditions of judge attire. 

The first female barrister in 1922, Ivy Williams, wore the classic barrister’s wig in the same style and fashion as the men, presumably because it was easier and helped to create a sense of uniformity and stability within the courts. 

Later on, in 1945, Sybil Campbell became the first woman to be appointed to the judiciary on a full-time basis as a magistrate where she too would wear the classic judicial attire until her retirement in 1961. 

The 21st Century – Court Attire Reforms

By the time the modern day came around, the focus on the old traditions was beginning to fade into relative obscurity. The 2007/2008 reforms brought into effect a number of changes to modern court dress. 

The changes to modern court attire included:

  • A single red robe for the duration of the year instead of a winter robe and a summer robe for High Court judges
  • No longer wearing wigs in open court
  • Wearing the new civil gown in civil hearings and family hearings
  • Detachable collars, bibs and bands becoming optional

Many of the old traditions of court dress became chiefly ceremonial. The black gown is still worn by judges but there is a larger emphasis on simply wearing formal clothing such as suits and smart dresses. This is particularly prevalent in cases, trials and hearings involving families and children. 

Betty Jackson was the pro-bono innovator behind the new civil gown, consulting on the design which included coloured bands to signify seniority. 

Heads of Division and Court of Appeal judges would be defined by gold bands, High Court Judges by red bands, District Judges by blue bands and Masters and Registrars by pink bands. 

But even without the classic wigs, wing collars and bands that populated judiciary courts in previous centuries, just enough of the tradition remains to ensure the judges in court continue to command respect and present themselves as the highest authority on the trial at hand. 

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