History of Legal Dress

Painting of Charles II resting his arm on a cannon
Charles II wearing a shoulder-length periwig.
Image Courtesy: Grace Elliot Blog

British legal dress has a long and rich history of traditions and symbolism. It was developed from the lay dress of the medieval period. In order to preserve the continuity and dignity of justice, judges and barristers adopted suitable costumes to convey the unchanging status and impartiality of justice in society.

Few regulations exist about the development of British legal dress. The principal document is the Judges’ Rules of 1635. The rules related to the robes worn by judges but not the dress worn by barristers. The rules only attempted to codify existing judicial dress rather than introduce innovations.

The custom of wearing one of the most noted items of legal dress – wigs – dates back to about 3000BC when nobility wore wigs made from real hair or sheep wool. Henry III of France introduced the fashion for false hair amongst his countrymen. Before the 17th century British lawyers did not wear wigs, but kept their hair and beards moderately short.

It was Charles II who introduced wigs into polite society. In 1667 Samuel Pepys wrote:

… “very handsome, and new periwig, make a great show.”