There is an old English expression, “old habits die hard”, which refers to the fact that it is often very difficult to change traditional customs and practices. This has certainly been the case in relation to the court dress that judges and lawyers wear in common law jurisdictions. This column explores the practices concerning court dress in common law jurisdictions and also in mainland China.
History of wigs and robes in common law jurisdictions
The practice of wearing wigs and robes in England dates back to the 17th century, when the wearing of wigs by wealthy people in society became fashionable, during the reign of King Charles II. The fashion originated in France during the reign of King Louis XIV, who is said to have worn wigs in order to hide his baldness. The English word “wig” is a short form of the word “periwig” (which derives from the French word “perruque”) and appears in the English word “bigwig”, which is used informally to refer to an important person.
The importance of using dress to distinguish judges and lawyers from other members of society was recognised in England as early as 1635, when a royal decree was passed regulating the dress worn by judges and requiring them to wear black robes on normal occasions, and red robes for special ceremonial events and criminal cases.
Barristers soon “followed suit” by adopting the practice of wearing wigs and black robes in court. Even within the profession of barristers, different dress is worn depending on their seniority. Senior barristers who have been appointed Queen’s Counsel wear a silk robe, which is why such barristers are said to have “taken silk”, and are often referred to informally as silks (for a discussion about the different names given to lawyers, see China Business Law Journal volume 1 issue 6: Terms to describe lawyers).
A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at law.asia.