Straight from the horse’s head: what’s the deal with barristers’ wigs?

Barristers’ wigs are part and parcel of the profession – but how did they originate and why do barristers wear them?

The practice of wearing wigs in court is – unsurprisingly – an old one, dating to the late 1600s. Lawyer 2B gave a call to Stanley Ley, a company that specialises in legal dress, where we spoke to a nice man, coincidentally also called Stanley, who told us: “When barristers started wearing wigs nobody washed their hair, so they served a real practical purpose.” Barristers’ wigs first emerged as a response to hygiene issues. With head lice common in unsanitary court rooms, wigs provided an effective solution. Lawyers would shave their heads and wear the wigs on top.

By the 17th century, they were a fashion statement too. Under King George III, himself influenced by Louis XIV of France who wore wigs to cover his balding head, it became customary in England for the nobility to sport wigs.

barristers' wigs

The art of the wigmaker

Barristers’ wigs can take up to four days to make, as they are constructed completely by hand. They are put together in sections. “We first start with the mount, which takes about three hours to make,” says Stanley from Stanley Ley, “then start doing the weaving which is when six pieces are strung up horizontally and put into wefts. The last part is making the curls which are rolled round boiled and steamed to maintain their shape”.

The wig manufacturing process was patented by Humphrey Ravenscroft in 1822. Each wig is made with one hundred per cent horse. According to Stanley, “this is because when the wigs first started being manufactured human hair was very expensive – but now the horsehair has increased in price as there is only one type that can be used and it has to be imported from China.” Good honest British horsehair, in case you were wondering, is more likely to have been messed about with while still attached to the animal.

Barristers’ wigs as fashion accessory

“I remember getting my wig before I started pupillage,” Paul Stevenson, a barrister at Tanfield Chambers, recalls. “It’s a fun experience. I got mine from Ede & Ravenscroft on Chancery Lane. The front section of the shop is devoted to suits, shirts, ties and so forth and you go into far back into the shop to a special section which deals with court dress.”

“Inevitably, it’s an experience unlike anything that you’ve had before but you come away with a wig which has a unique number (which is written inside the wig). You have to decide what type of wig is best – I recall that there are various different styles and there is some variation in the tone of the wig. You then have to decide where you want to keep it. I opted for something called a circuit case which is an oval hard tin painting in black and gold onto which they paint your name.”

Most barristers, just store their wigs in a tin with holes it in to allow the wig to breathe. However, Stanley Ley advised that it is far better to put them in a leather wig case which can help them to last longer. A well looked-after wig can last for up to a hundred years.

Keeping it absolutely pristine, however, is not required. Indeed, sporting a scruffy and roughed up wig is seen as a mark of experience. There are plenty of stories of barristers giving their brand new wigs a bit of a kicking or letting the dog play with it to give it that fashionable worn-in look. And conversely, there’s the old story of the barristers’ wife who put his wig in the washing machine. It came out looking brand new and he was furious that she’d ruined the look that had taken him years to achieve.

In some families, barristers’ wigs are passed down through the generations. Stanley says: “Sometimes people will come in with wigs over 50 years old that are just so fragile that if they are washed they would fall apart. The dirt actually helps to keep the wigs together. Over time the sweat from your head is transferred to the wig which allows it sculpt to your head.”

Barrister wigs are expensive items, generally starting at a minimum of £425 with judges’ wigs going up to thousands of pounds in price. Stanley Ley reports that it frequently sees barristers coming in to replace their wig after having it stolen from the robing rooms.

“I once left my wig at Isleworth Crown Court by the seats outside court for a few minutes,” a barrister from 2 Bedford Row told Lawyer 2B. “When I returned it was gone. My friend from chambers suggested I ask security for the court CCTV – we saw a defendant or the friend of a defendant picking it up. We both confronted him and he said he had put it in the canteen where he believed lost property lived. It was nowhere to be found – and the cost of replacing it was about £400 so was not a cheap mistake…”

Time to wave goodbye to the wig?

The point of wigs in modern day society is a question that has raised its head several times over the years. Even in the 1700s not everyone was impressed by them. “We must not have men sitting in judgment who look like mice peeping out of oakum,” US founding father Thomas Jefferson declared after a visit to London.

Nowadays, opponents say that they are anachronistic and an unnecessary inconvenience. Many people also argue that they are itchy and sweaty. For many years in the 80s and 90s a rogue group, Lawyers Against Wigs (LAW) argued enthusiastically to get rid of them. Although a 1992 survey by the Lord Chancellor found that most barristers wanted to wear the wigs, by 2001 the Commercial Bar Association was voting, with a majority of 57 per cent, in favour of their abolition for civil cases following the then-Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine’s statement that the wearing of wigs was “an anachronism“. Then in 2007, in a landmark moment for the English legal system, Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips decided that wearing wigs would no longer be compulsory in non-criminal court proceedings (“I’ll lose 50 percent of my business in a stroke. If I told you what I thought of Lord Phillips’ decision, I’d be thrown in prison for contempt of court,” an angry wig-maker raged at the time). More recently, in 2011 it was announced that barristers would not have wear wigs or robes in the newly-created Supreme Court.

But barristers’ wigs still have their defenders. Though debate has cooled over the last decade in England and Wales, there were ructions in Australia in 2016 when the Supreme Court of Victoria dumped wigs. “This is a modern court and the abolition of wigs is all part of the progression towards a modern way,” Chief Justice Marilyn Warren argued. Five barristers defied the decision and arrived at a case wigged up. The presiding judge took a dim view and accused them of disrespecting the Chief Justice: “She is the constitutional chief of the judicial system of Victoria and has directed that judges not wear wigs, and you five stand there wearing wigs – it’s untenable.”

While modernisers may have valid points, traditionalists can make their case strongly too. “The wigs help to preserve the anonymity and authority of barristers. They help them feel confident in doing their job,” say wigmakers Ede & Ravenscroft.

“The wigs are part of the uniform of a barrister and breathe an air of respect into the role,” adds Stanley from Stanley Ley: “They are like a policeman’s helmet. Without the wigs and robes barristers would just look like a court usher. With them, they are a barrister.”

“I think wigs and court dress reflect the continuity of the profession,” Paul Stevenson says. “There is a lot said about modernity but actually it’s really just a uniform and many professions have a uniform. As such, I think wigs and robes are actually quite a good leveler. No matter how you get to the Bar, your background, school, or university, it reflects the fact that having gone through the process one barrister is an equal to another.”

“I do also think that it is quite good for the public because the public expectation of a barrister is of a person in a wig and gown and, as such, wigs reflect their expectations of the legal process,” Stevenson continues. “I have to say that I have never had any lay client complain that the wig and gown makes them feel detached from the process or apprehensive. I think that many peoples’ first experience of a court room is quite unsettling for any number of reasons and I think that it’s quite unhelpful to identify wigs and gowns as the reason for that.”

“I also think that court dress has a welcome effect on the wearer,” he concludes. “A court hearing is a performance and I think getting into court dress does focus your mind on the importance of the process.”

“That’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes a real pain to have to travel up and down the country with a wig and gown, particularly in hot weather, only to find that your judge doesn’t want you to robe.”