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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What About the Wigs?

Eric recently had a post on the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which opened last Friday.  But he misses the major point -- well, not really a major point -- which is that the wigs are apparently going away:

For the official opening ceremony Friday morning, the 11 judges (one slot is vacant) shed their old red robes and the wigs worn by lords on formal occasions -- Lord Phillips calls it the "Father Christmas outfit" -- in favor of new ceremonial black robes, embellished with gold lace and thread.

(More after the jump.)

Another parallelism/circularity there; the late Chief Justice Rehnquist had his gold stripes stitched into his robe so as to emulate the British Lord Chancellor in the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera, Iolanthe.  And our judicial big shots were there too for the opening:

The occasion is noteworthy enough that the U.S. Supreme Court canceled its session Friday so that Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer could attend the U.K. court's opening, with Queen Elizabeth II presiding.

But let's keep our focus: what happened to the wigs?  An article sadly titled, "British Judges Lose Traditional Wigs" explains further:

A new regulation in Britain says judges in most of the country's courts will no longer be required to wear their traditional wigs.

The regulation, which went into effect Thursday, means the horsehair barristers' wigs that typically adorn the heads of most British judges will essentially be extinct in the country's courtrooms, The Times of London reported.

The loss of the wigs represents an attempt to modernize the British legal system and is accompanied by the implementation of a new robe design for all judges as well. The new robes were created by designer Betty Jackson and include dark blue gabardine materials and velvet facings, The Times said.

The modern changes in British courtrooms after 300 years of the traditional judicial garb will not affect the country's criminal courts. Judges in those courts will still be adorned with the gray wigs and traditional robes, the newspaper said.

At least the criminal justice system will be intact after this terrible loss.

Posted by Chris Lund on October 21, 2009 at 04:49 PM | Permalink


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FWIW, the wig lost its centrality in British fashion in the early 1800s, after more than a century of popularity, largely as a result of William Pitt's wig powder tax according to Professor Maule.

This wasn't necessary a bad move. At the time, flour used to powder wigs accounted for a significant share of domestic flour consumption at a time when there were bread shortages in England.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 22, 2009 7:36:46 PM

Now that the Wigs are gone, can the Tories be far behind?

Posted by: Supremecourtjester | Oct 22, 2009 2:35:02 PM

Actually, the Law Lords have been wearing 'normal' clothes (suit and tie) during hearings for quite some time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_dress#Judges).

The red robes were simply ceremonial robes which they wore at all special occasions in their capacity as members of the House of Lords, not especially because they are the Law Lords. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/feedarticle/8735529

The other article that you quote discusses the robes worn by judges at the lower courts and doesn't apply to the Law Lords.

Posted by: jsd | Oct 22, 2009 10:19:46 AM

Appalling! I'm at a loss as to what possible gain in terms of "modernization" one gets from such a move, while the loss in terms of tradition, continuity, and charm is immeasurable. If this is the end result of Cool Britannia, all I can say is that it sucks!

Posted by: Nate Oman | Oct 22, 2009 10:04:01 AM

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