Criminal trials and court scenes fascinate the public. No wonder why many television shows, portrayals, and documentaries depict and visualize what happens within those halls. High-profile cases and controversial figures on trial also get televised and streamed live with high ratings.
But you might get curious why some of them wear wigs called peruke powdered like during centuries ago. For example, in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Australia, certain judges and barristers still put them on their heads.
Americans can also see their legislator ancestors wear wigs during their country’s infancy in historical shows.
So why do lawyers wear wigs? In this article, you will find out.
Wigs have been a part of British tradition and culture.
Wearing wigs or perukes is a heritage brought by the British across their former empire. To them, this costume gives the hearings and proceedings ceremonious and dignified.
The wig is a symbol of justice. In a way, it represents how the barristers and judges distance themselves from bias. Their head costume embodies their higher ideal—to serve with justice and fairness. The wig has been an integral costume in courts that it is offensive for a barrister not to wear one.
Wigs have been a status symbol in the law industry.
British-influenced courtrooms have seen practitioners wear wigs and robes since the seventeenth century. Since then, barristers and judges have adopted different styles for their wigs.
The wigs that barristers wear have frizzles on top and curly sides. These also have a pair of tied strings of hair behind the wig. Meanwhile, judges have curls that extend to their shoulders.
Wigs show the wearers’ experience and prestige.
Wigs mostly come from the hair of goats and horses. Because of this, wigs turn yellow through the years. So this discolouration gives the wearer a sense of wisdom.
These wigs are challenging and expensive to create. First, the hair itself is precious and costly. After these get harvested, the wigmaker crafts the headwear with centuries-old techniques. Because of this, perukes in Australia can cost up to over $1300.
Wigs have a deep historical context in Britain’s legal system.
Perukes and hats are no longer suitable in fashion today. However, wigs stay relevant in courtrooms across the former British Empire. This headwear matches the robes that barristers and judges wear whenever they are in court hearings.
The story of the wig goes back to the seventeenth century, as mentioned earlier. During that time, nobles and elites put on powdered horsehair wigs. The peasants crafted their versions with cotton and hair from dead people and goats. Some people even sold their hair for this industry.
The problems they faced. Why did itchy wigs become a thing in the first place? Syphilis. During that time, there were no antibiotics or cures for this disease. (It would only get discovered accidentally three centuries later.)
This condition led syphilis to spread in Europe. Infected people endured rashes, mental illnesses, vision loss sores, and hair loss.
Aside from syphilis, lice plagued Europe. With poor hygiene and the lack of sanitation came parasites and bacterial infections.
The rich people at the time sought to hide how syphilis ravaged their hair and head. Aside from them, many endured the itch of lice bites. Wigs became the solution. It’s easier to clean a wig than pick up lice on one’s scalp.
It was France’s Louis XIV, the Sun King, who set wigs as a trend. He appeared with wigs to cover his balding head. Seeing this, European royalty, nobles, and bourgeoisie imitated the style. One of them is England’s Charles II.
The judges and barristers of England started wearing wigs in the 1680s. In 1865, this headwear became a typical sight in courts.
The wigs’ decline. In the next century, men began to abandon wigs. But it remained mandatory among royal coachmen, Anglican bishops, and legal practitioners. Moreover, they should keep their facial hair short.
Bishops stopped the mandatory wearing of wigs in the 1830s. As for the barristers and judges, a new development happened in 2007. The High Court of Justice in London declared that wigs should only get worn in criminal cases. So barristers should no longer wear them in civil courts and family courts.
In 2011, judges in Ireland and the United Kingdom stopped wearing wigs. Similarly, Jamaica followed this example in 2013. In that Caribbean nation, legal practitioners only put on wigs ceremonially.
Why do lawyers wear wigs until now?
It seems that British barristers will not give up their wigs soon. After all, this embodies their excellence and careers as lawyers. Furthermore, wearing one is a sign of respect towards the courtroom, the judge, and the law. It is a heritage of the past within the legal community, a symbol of tradition and justice.
What else are the uniforms worn in the courtroom other than wigs?
Aside from wigs, robes are typical inside courts in Britain and other former English colonies. Wearing robes is a four-hundred-year-old tradition, sharing its origins with wigs.
In 1625, the State Papers of the English government contained an academic treatise about robes. The legal officials in the nation have adopted robes as a part of their uniform in the courtroom. This document also suggested how this attire can change based on the wearers’ rank and the current season.
Back then, barristers and judges wore robes with different colours. But in the United States and Canada, judges wear black robes.
Will wigs fall out of favor among lawyers soon?
No, they will not. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, British justice secretary, Robert Buckland, asserted that wigs in courtrooms are here to stay.
After all, the British legal system faces far more pressing controversies and issues. These include rising deportation problems, a decline in funding, and the stack of urgent cases that piled up during the pandemic.
The chairman of The Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales, James Mulholland, said the same thing. He declared that barristers do not feel compelled to change their uniforms. This reasoning can get traced back to the wigs’ symbolism in the courtroom.