April 19, 2022
Barristers and judges in the UK are renowned for their distinctive court dress, which includes a black robe with a white collar. However, perhaps the most iconic element of their attire is the wig! But why do barristers wear wigs in the UK? Read on to find out what started this tradition and why we decided to keep it.

Why Do Barristers Wear Wigs?

There are a number of reasons why barristers still wear wigs:

  • it brings a sense of formality and solemnity to proceedings.
  • by wearing a gown and wig, a barrister represents the rich history of common law and the supremacy of the law over the proceedings.
  • wearing a wig allows a visual separation between the law and those before it.

A judge is able to suspend court dress at his own disposal, perhaps where it may intimidate children in the court or during hot periods of weather. Therefore, it really is about symbolism more than any rule.

Origins of the Tradition

The trend to wear wigs in court was started by Louis XIV of France. In the mid-17th century, a balding scalp was considered as a sign that someone had contracted syphilis. Therefore, the king disguised his scalp using a wig. This trend quickly spread throughout the upper and middle-classes in Europe including to Britain where Charles II followed suit.

The courts, however, were slower to adopt the trend, with many continuing to sport their natural hair in their judicial portraits. By the 17th century, wigs started to be worn by members of the upper classes in the UK and eventually became part of court dress for judges and layers. The adoption of wigs by barristers was also motivated by the desire to distinguish themselves from solicitors and to establish a sense of formality and respect within the courtroom.

By 1685, full, shoulder-length wigs became part of proper court dress, because barristers were also considered as part of middle-class society.

By the 1820s, wigs had gone out of fashion but coachmen, bishops and those in the legal profession continued to wear them. Coachmen and bishops stopped in the mid-1830s but again the courts kept the tradition.


Get The Latest Law Updates

Subscribe to our Newsletters!

Get Informed

Do Barristers in the UK still wear wigs?

In 2007, wigs were no longer required during family or civil court appearances or when appearing before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The decision to wear a wig is typically left up to the individual barrister or is at the discretion of the judge who is presiding over the case. Wigs are still worn in criminal cases and some barristers choose to wear them during civil proceedings. In general, more senior barristers are more likely to wear wigs as wigs are more commonly worn higher up in the courts.

Traditionally, wigs were used to convey the formality and ceremonial aspect of the courtroom. Wigs are often considered as symbolic of the legal profession and wearing one has been perceived as a symbol of respect for the court and law. However the tradition of wearing wigs has been called into question in recent years. Some argue that the tradition has become outdated, while others believe that wigs are an important tradition within the legal profession and a legacy that should be preserved.

Do Judges Wear Wigs in the UK?

Judges in the UK  also wear wigs as part of their traditional court dress. However, the type of wigs worn by judges, known as the “full-bottomed wigs”, are usually longer and more ornate than the traditional barrister wig. The use of wigs by judges in the UK dates back to the 17th century and this tradition continued up until the 1840s during criminal trials. Although smaller wigs are now more commonly used, the “full-bottomed wigs” are still reserved for ceremonial dress. Traditionally, wigs have been used to convey the dignity and authority of the judiciary, however not all judges continue to wear wigs and there has been much debate as to whether the tradition should be maintained. In general, senior judges such as those in the higher courts are more likely to continue to wear wigs, whereas lower court judges are less likely to do so. 

What Does Court Dress Look Like Today?

Male advocates must wear a white stiff wing collar, alongside a dark double-breasted suit with a bar jacket or court waistcoat. Female advocates must wear a dark suit with bands attached to a collarette alongside their bar jacket or waistcoat

Junior barristers:
An open-fronted gown with open sleeves over a black or dark suit with a short horsehair wig with curls at the side.

Queen’s Counsel:
A silk gown, court coat and waistcoat. On special occasions, a QC must wear a long wig, black breeches, silk stockings, lace cuffs and buckled shoes.

Judges have different judicial robes depending on their status and the type of court in which they practice. Generally have a short bench wig, reserving a longer wig for ceremonial occasions

Will UK Barristers Continue to Wear Wigs?

The tradition of wearing wigs in the legal profession is steeped in history and custom. Reforms have suggested that the court is increasingly flexible as to barristers wearing wigs and it is possible that they will be discarded in the next 50 years. Nevertheless, wigs remain an important symbol of the legal profession’s history.

Want to understand more about how UK courts work? Take a look at your barrister work experience options – or try a mock trial.


Loading More Content