The end of the judges wig is nigh

After 300 years, judges and barristers wigs could be taking their final bow


If you were attracted to the law by the prospect of wearing a dapper white wig in court, you might have picked the wrong moment.

Judges are preparing to scrap their wigs in civil court cases in a move that could end more than 300 years of legal tradition.

If judges lose their wigs, it is likely that barristers and Queen Counsel will follow their lead nobody wants to upset a judge with a fancy wig.

The discussion over whether lawyers and judges should hang up their wigs forever started five years ago in 2002. The Lord Chancellor at the time, Lord Irvine of Lairg, commissioned a 110,000 review to look into public perception of court dress.

At the time, just 31 per cent of 2,000 people surveyed wanted civil court judges to keep their wigs, while 68 per cent thought criminal court judges should retain them.

Less than 20 per cent of respondents thought court clerks should keep their headgear.

If all wigs were abolished, the courts would lose a tradition, but would save some cash. A standard barristers wig costs around 500 and a ceremonial judges wig can go for up to 1,800.

The history of the wig is rooted in fashion. Wigs appeared in courtrooms around 1680, following the European trend among high-class gents to wear ever larger wigs to display their wealth.

The main difference between the wig you will see in todays courts and that of the old variety is the source of hair. In the late 17th century, human hair was used, but that gradually gave way to the more practical horse hair.

Like any item of high fashion, a wig is handmade by a specialist using rare materials. A skilled craftsperson will take around 44 hours to make one wig, using imported horses hair from China. Long hair is needed to make the curls of the wig, known as the weft.

The three curls at the side of the wig show that it is for legal use. Wigs worn in the royal household have two curls, while wigs worn in Scottish courts have curls that go the opposite way to those worn in England.

The 500 price tag does not reflect the real cost of making the wig. Outfitters reduce their prices to attract long-term business.

Nicholas Fugler, tailor at bespoke legal outfitters Stanley Ley, says: The price is subsidised from other parts of the business. Its a loss leader, like paint in a DIY shop. You cant ask a skilled craftsman for three weeks work at 500. Every single part of the process is done by hand.

The wig should last for many years, and so is a one-off purchase.

Fugler says: Wigs last a very long time. Weve had one to clean that was 102 years old, passed down through five generations of lawyers. They dont really fall apart.

But the other elements of court dress, such as the gown, need to be replaced during the career of a lawyer or judge. Outfitters sell the wig at a loss so they can get the repeat business on other items.

When I wig and gown someone, I dont expect to see them for another two to three years, but theyre very loyal after that, says Fugler.

Good clients can even ask for some unusual twists on the legal theme. Fugler has had one request for a wig made out of the hair of someones pet dog. This, he said, would be impossible to do because no dog has hair long enough.

Fugler believes the wig will survive the attempts to modernise the courts. The reason is the same one that got the wigs into the courts in the first place: fashion.

Fugler used to work with John Galliano, head designer at Christian Dior, and has seen trends come and go.

This is all cyclical, he says. Im sitting here with no tie on, but if you look at the young people theyre all wearing ties now. If you look at whats current on the street ties, narrow-collared shirts its all formal. Just give them a few more years. It all goes around and comes around.

If the wig can survive this generation it could last another 300 years before the next challenge.