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As a solicitor, my “legal fashion” normally consists of a black or blue dress, paired with a sweater and heels. But this fairly standard outfit worn by City lawyers like myself is quite a departure from those worn by our professional predecessors. Earlier this week, I visited the Middle Temple Library’s exhibit, Legal Fashion: From Mantles to Mourning Hoods to discover how English court dress has evolved over the centuries.

When the Romans left the British Isles in 425, they took with them their legal system. The Anglo-Saxon law which developed thereafter was based on Scandinavian and Germanic codes and folkright, and varied from village to village. It was not until after the Norman Conquest of 1066 that courts, or indeed any sort of trained legal professionals, began to appear in modern-day England (Maitland on English Law).


Read on to see nearly 1000 years of legal fashion…

Serjeants-at-law were an elite group of lawyers established by Henry II in the 12th century, and generally speaking, only Serjeants could become judges. Like monks and scholars, Serjeants and judges wore a habit of a long robe, hood, tabard (a sleeveless tunic or coat) and coif (a close-fitting cap). By 1400, judges had discarded the tabards and started to wear a mantle (cloak or cape) instead. According to legal historian Sir James Baker, this shift in fashion was significant, as the mantle was an item of clothing which symbolized magisterial authority – and worn by leaders including the Lord Mayor and the King himself.

Illuminated manuscript (c. 1460) showing a court scene from the time of Henry VI (1421 – 1471). The judges are in red.

Much of the Tudor period (1485 – 1603) was marked by the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. In terms of legal theory, it was generally accepted at this time that even the King (or Queen) was bound to obey the laws of the land. However, the spiritual and religious movement which led to the Protestant Reformation in England was implemented in such a way so as to increase the sovereign’s political and legal powers. By stepping in to replace the Catholic Church’s privilege to define the laws of God, the monarch removed the influence of the Pope and became the ultimate arbiter or “judge” on Earth.

The monarch was therefore both principal law-maker and head of the Church, which many considered to be the ultimate source of legal authority. Although judges were the formal interpreters of that law, it is easy to see how the Reformation caused a potentially uneasy – if not outright dangerous – relationship between the crown,

Church, and lawyers.

This power struggle certainly shaped the evolution of legal fashion. During the Tudor era, and under Queen Elizabeth’s reign in particular, Parliament passed a series of Sumptuary Laws intended to regulate consumption, luxury or extravagance, and “particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel” (Black’s Law Dictionary). Maintenance of the social order played an important role in fashion legislation.

These attempts to curtail exhibitionist vanity were felt at all levels of society, including the legal elites. In 1557, lawyers which had not attained the level of Knight or Bencher were prohibited from wearing hose in any colour except for scarlet or crimson, and could not wear velvet caps, double cuffs on their shirts, or scarfs, or beards of longer than three weeks’ growth. The fine for growing your beard too long was a fine of 20 shillings: that’s £275 in today’s money! By 1584, lawyers could neither wear long nor curly hair – I suppose that’s no GHD for you, m’lord?

In addition to enforcing social hierarchy and authority, these laws also served to support the domestic textile markets by making it an offence to wear foreign fashions. A Parliamentary order of 20 May 1558 stated that lawyers were not allowed to wear bryches in their hoses (trousers) in the Dutch, Spanish or Almion (German) fashion. The penalty for a first offence was a fine; for a second offence, the penalty was expulsion!

Sir Richard Hutton (1560 – 1639). Originally from Cumbria, as a judge Hutton famously ruled against King Charles I in a matter over a type of tax known as “ship money.”

As seen in the portrait above, robes became looser at the wrists and the lining was turned back three to six inches. A black cincture knotted in the front, together with a black corned cap called a pileus quadratus worn over the skullcap and coif, also became part of the standard costume. Although scarlet robes were usually only worn on special occasions, violet robes were often worn in the winter and green robes were worn in the summer. Gradually, violet robes became darker and darker, before they were phased out and replaced by black entirely. Eventually, only black and scarlet robes were worn.

The Stuart period (1603 to 1715) was a time of great change in British history. On the fashion scene, a group of senior judges signed a solemn decree known as The Judges Rules of 1635. Amongst other things, the rules set out in detail “what to wear” for judges, both in and out of court. For example, between October and May a judge had to wear robes lined with miniver (white fur). In the warmer summer months, he could wear one lined with or taffeta or silk. Instead of the wide neck ruffs associated with Queen Elizabeth I, two plain rectangular linen bands were tied at the throat. When in the presence of the King or Lord Mayor, or when in St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, a scarlet robe was required. Special dress also applied when dining with the Shireeve (Sheriff) or when travelling to “ride the Circuits“.

Francis North, 1st Baron Guilford (1637 – 1685) was an eminent lawyer and Chief Justice of the Common Pleas

It was also during this time that wigs began to rise in popularity in Continental Europe. Afraid of the impact his premature balding would have on his popularity, King Louis XIV of France started to wear a wig in 1655, at the age of 17. When King Charles II started going grey five years later, he followed his French cousin’s lead and began to wear a wig as well. Before long, full wigs were incorporated into the formal judicial costume.

As for the history of legal wigs, it’s worth noting that a major development occurred in 1822 when Humphrey Ravenscroft invented the Tie Wig. Ede & Ravenscroft, established in 1689, holds the title as the oldest tailors in London. The company sells wigs, robes, and gowns, and has published a Sartorial History of the Legal Wig & Robe online.

According to lore, when Charles II died in 1685, the judges wore solemn black robes as a symbol of their grief. Because the King was so well loved, the judges decided to remain in mourning for years to follow. However, some literature points to the mourning as a response to the death of Queen Mary II in 1694. In any event, the idea of judges wearing black to mourn a deceased monarch – whether it was Charles or Mary – seems a bit apocryphal.

A more likely explanation is that black robes were associated with divine authority and dignity. Protestants, who were quite socially and politically influential in England, Holland, and Scandinavia at the time, considered the colour to be neutral and unpretentious. Another simple reason for black? It was popular, relatively inexpensive, and easy to keep clean. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that there are some strange theories about the “mourning hoods” you may have noticed on the back of a barrister’s shoulder.

Queen Anne’s death in 1714 marked the end of the Stuart period, and the beginning of Hanoverian dynasty. Named for the House of Hanover’s four Kings named George, the Georgian era (1714 through 1837) saw Britain develop into industrialised power at the centre of an expanding international Empire. The fashions of the Georgian era are familiar to many of us as the styles portrayed on TV and film adaptations of Jane Austen novels.

Against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, by the mid 1750s, the Judges Rules of 1635 were not being followed as strictly as before. Civil judges wore plain silk gowns, and Crown (criminal) judges wore a scarf instead of a mantle. The cincture was replaced by a broad black sash, and many lawyers began to wear more open gowns. As for wigs, new taxes on wig powder the more austere influence brought about by the American and French Revolutions meant wigs had fallen out of fashion with the general public. However, legal professionals maintained the wig as a vital part of the legal and judicial uniform.

This still is from the BBC show Poldark (Season 1, Episode 3) in which Ross Poldark attends court. Series one is set in Cornwall in 1799. You can see a clip of the scene on the BBC website here.

Parliamentary historians often refer to the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) as the Age of Reform. The higher court system, which had existed since the Middle Ages, was completely reorganised by the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875. As the legal profession was being modernised, so too was the fashion industry in general. Victorian England witnessed a period of economic growth thanks to the expansion of trade, along with technological advancements including railways and engines. Sewing machines, the import of cotton, and the development of synthetic dyes likewise meant that clothing could be produced faster and cheaper.

After the passing of the Judicature Act of 1875, judges continued the old practice of wearing a black silk gown at nisi prius (civil) court, but wore the scarlet robe with a scarf on the Crown (criminal) side. Additionally, the coif (cap) on top of the wig was by this point abandoned, as was the mantle for every-day use.

However, changes to court structure and organisation which occurred in the aftermath of WWI and WWII impacted judicial dress in subtle, yet noteworthy, ways. For example, when County Courts were created in 1846, judges wore black gowns. But in 1915 Judge Woodfall suggested that County Court judges wear robes similar to those of High Court judges. Woodfall selected a violet robe, but lined with lilac or mauve taffeta to distinguish it from the High Court robe. A lilac tippet (or casting hood) and black belt also formed part of the uniform, but due to rationing during the First World War, this did not become compulsory until 1919.

A full violet hood for ceremonial occasions was added in 1937, and the creation of the Crown Court for criminal cases in 1971 led to the introduction of a scarlet tippet. However, this dress code was not compulsory, and Judges at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) still wear their black gowns.

Clearly, changes made to the court structure and legal system have had a major effect on what is worn by judges. But it would be wrong to suggest that legal fashion ignores societal trends and debates occurring beyond the courtroom. When the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 was passed, women were allowed to study and practice law. The question of what they should wear as barristers then sparked a heated discussion amongst legal professionals, as well as in the media. When Ivy Williams and Helena Normanton approached their admission to the bar in 1922, the practicalities of female legal attire became an urgent question. In March, the Committee of Judges and Benchers simply decided that women barristers would wear ordinary barrister’s gowns and wigs.

Helena Normanton (1882 – 1957) was the first woman to practise as a barrister in England.

In recent history, debates have surrounded simplifying legal fashion: some question whether the customary clothing for judges and lawyers is relevant or even appropriate. In 1948, the House of Commons debated a motion to prohibit wigs and gowns in court, and in 1970, a proposal was introduced to curtail the variety of judicial robes. Critics of the wig and robes claim that legal dress can make witnesses hesitant and strained when giving evidence, due to the theatrical atmosphere in the court. Others suggest that it makes barristers and judges seem outdated, ridiculous, and alienating. Nevertheless, both initiatives were defeated, with those in favour of retaining judicial dress successfully arguing that the traditional wigs and robes should be maintained.

In 2009, English designer Betty Jackson was asked to create a new look for judicial robes. Known for making “funky British clothes for aspiring funky British girls,” Jackson opted for a navy gabardine and wool mix, trimmed with velvet on the cuffs and facings. The design was unsurprisingly met with criticism.

When I first moved to London seven years ago, I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the British judicial system. When one considers that the legal system is over 1,000 years old, it comes as no surprise that it is confusing and complex. Even Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service website states: “It’s doubtful that anyone asked to design a justice system would choose to copy the English model. It’s contradictory in places, and rather confusing. However, the judiciary is still changing and evolving to meet the needs of our society…”

I like the fact that professional affiliation is reflected in a judge’s costume, and I think it’s nice that the history of a particular court and it’s traditions can be reflected in small details of apparel. That having been said, I also like the fact that the idea of what a lawyer must wear is slowly but surely changing. Many of my clients are young companies which occupy the media and technology sector: I know they don’t really care if I’m wearing a suit!

Of course, lawyers must maintain the right balance between showing personality and maintaining a sense of professional propriety. However, those of us familiar with “doing it for the ‘gram” and sharing our OOTDs on social media are now making our way up the ranks at our law firms or chambers. Some “Millennials” are now in their 30’s (!) and admittedly, we want to express ourselves through clothing.

I know, I know. The black suit holds eternal prominence in every lawyer’s wardrobe. But that won’t stop me from occasionally wearing a colourful blouse, ballet flats, or even statement jewelry… After all, legal fashion is shaped not only by changes to the court structure and the socioeconomic climate of the times, but by the day-to-day practicalities of being a modern day lawyer!

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Much of the information from this post was drawn from the Middle Temple Law Library exhibit, Legal Fashion: From Mantles to Mourning Hoods, on display from September through December 2018. Special thanks to Librarian Lenka Geidt for offering me a tour!

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