Why Do Lawyers In The Uk Wear Wigs? Find Out Now!

In the intricate tapestry of British legal tradition, the wearing of wigs by lawyers stands out as one of its most distinctive and enduring symbols. This practice, deeply rooted in the history and evolution of the legal system, serves as a living link to the past, embodying the solemnity, anonymity, and continuity of the law. The reasons behind this unique tradition are as complex as they are fascinating, intertwining elements of history, societal norms, and the pursuit of justice. In our article, “Why Do Lawyers in the UK Wear Wigs,” we delve into the historical origins of this practice, explore its significance in the contemporary legal landscape, and address the debates surrounding its future.

By providing a comprehensive analysis, enriched with expert insights and perspectives, we aim to not only inform but also engage our readers in a deeper understanding of a tradition that, to outsiders, may seem merely quaint or outdated. Whether you’re a legal professional, a history enthusiast, or simply curious, this exploration into the world of legal wigs is designed to pique your interest and encourage further reading. Join us as we unravel the layers behind this iconic aspect of British legal attire, and discover what the future holds for this unique blend of fashion and formality in the courtroom.

A Brief History of Wigs in English Legal Tradition

Wigs became part of formal attire for British barristers during the 17th century. This coincided with the time period when wigs were popular fashion accessories among English gentlemen and public figures. The shorter hairstyles and wigs were favored over the longer hair and beards of previous generations.

By the 1660s, many judges and lawyers had adopted the periwig or peruke style of wig for official court duties. What started as a contemporary fashion statement evolved into an embodiment of judicial office and legal authority. Donning the wig became part of the ritual of preparing for proceedings in court.

Over time, the wearing of wigs was solidified as an expected tradition for barristers appearing before judges. This established the wig as an integral component of formal court dress that identified its wearer as a legal professional.

A Brief History of Wigs in English Legal Tradition

Types of Wigs Worn in UK Courts

There are differences in the styling and construction of wigs worn by barristers and judges in British courts. The distinctions play an important role in denoting the wearer’s position and status.

The Barrister’s Wig

A barrister’s wig is known as a peruke or periwig. It is made of curled horsehair woven together to create a tight mesh of ringlets. The curls surround the head and form a halo effect around the face.

The peruke style frames the face and drapes down to the barrister’s shoulders. This is meant to complement the black gown worn by barristers in court.

The horsehair provides a lightweight feel and a durable shape that can withstand daily use. The pale whiteness against the dark robe identifies the wearer as a legal advocate.

The Judge’s Wig

The wig worn by judges in British courts has a fuller body and longer curls compared to barristers’ wigs. The judge’s wig features distinctive side wings or tabs on both sides.

The longer, more elaborate wig represents the elevated status of a judge presiding over court proceedings. The fuller wig style emerged in the late 17th to early 18th century as a symbol of the gravity of their office and authority.

Judges in higher courts, such as High Court justices, wear even longer curled wigs tied at the nape of the neck and draping over the shoulders. The most distinguished wig of all is the long, black taffeta gown and full-bottomed wig worn in special court sessions by the Lord Chancellor.

The Deeper Symbolism and Purpose of Legal Wigs

Beyond historical fashion, the continued wearing of wigs by British legal professionals serves important practical and symbolic purposes:

Anonymity and Equality – The wig masks individual features and places focus on the wearer’s role instead of their identity. It creates uniformity so judgment rests on the law rather than appearances.

Authority and Ritual – The wig reinforces the formality of court affairs and the gravity of the legal authority figure wearing it. Donning the wig is part of a ritual in preparing mentally for court.

Tradition and Continuity – Wearing wigs that have changed little over centuries emphasizes the long continuity of British legal customs. The legacy weighs on each wearer.

Solemnity and Decorum – The wig establishes a dignified atmosphere essential to maintaining decorum in the courtroom. Dressing formally reinforces the solemn nature of sworn oaths and duties.

Why Did Wigs Become Part of Court Dress Originally?

When wigs were first adopted into court dress in 17th century England, they served more practical purposes:

Hygienic Function – Shaving one’s head prevented lice infestations, which were a problem before modern hair care and hygiene. Covering the shorn head with a wig maintained a dignified appearance.

Fashionable Style – Wigs became a trendy accent for formal attire, allowing gentlemen to achieve a uniform look and cover balding heads. Barristers adopted fashionable wigs to convey success.

Added Gravity – Fuller wigs provided a sense of presence and authority, which judges sought to maintain order and command respect in their courts.

Distinguish Profession – Wearing wigs helped differentiate barristers and judges from other professions. Over time, legal wigs evolved distinctive styles that further identified wearers’ roles.

Why Have Wigs Endured in UK Courts?

Even as fashion changed, wigs maintained their important status in British legal dress. Continuing relevance stems from both symbolic and practical justifications:

Formality and Ritual – Wigs sustain courtroom decorum and solemnity. The ritual donning of wigs signals preparation for sworn duties.

Tradition and History – Wigs represent the weight of history and continuity of Britain’s legal system across centuries.

Visibility and Identification – Wigs make barristers and judges easily identifiable within the courtroom and in public consciousness.

Anonymity and Impartiality – Wigs allow focus on the law rather than personal identity or appearance of individuals.

Professional Distinction – Wigs visually differentiate legal professionals from others in court, such as solicitors or clerks.

The Debate: Should the Tradition Discontinue?

In recent decades, the tradition of wearing wigs in British courts has been debated:

Arguments For Keeping Wigs

  • Upholding centuries of history and professional culture
  • Maintaining dignified formality in courtrooms
  • Preserving a clear visual demarcation of legal professionals
  • Providing a cloak of impartiality and equality

Arguments Against Wigs

  • Impractical, uncomfortable, and outdated
  • Alienating to the average citizen and litigant
  • Perpetuating an insular legal culture rather than modernizing
  • Serving no real function in contemporary courts

Proponents see discontinuing wigs as diminishing important standards of decorum and legal heritage. Critics contend wigs prioritize symbols over practicality in a modern judicial system.

Recent Changes and Exceptions to Wig Protocol

Though wigs remain integral to courts’ dress codes, accommodations have been made in some circumstances:

  • Wigs are now optional in civil and family court cases.
  • Stipulations on wigs for solicitors presenting cases were abolished in the 1990s.
  • Some judges now opt not to wear wigs over hygiene concerns related to lice and itching.
  • Non-criminal courts relax rules in summer months due to wigs’ heat discomfort.
  • Judicial dress requirements have been eased for appeals heard remotely rather than in a courtroom.

Overall, barristers and judges maintain the wig tradition in most criminal and high court proceedings. But practical allowances demonstrate a willingness to evolve with contemporary needs and sensibilities.

What Does the Future Hold for Legal Wigs?

The place of wigs in British legal affairs going forward remains uncertain. The enduring tradition may change gradually or be eliminated altogether:

  • Preservation – Wigs preserved as revered symbols of legal history and identity.
  • Adaptation – Modernization of styles and relaxing of rules for wearing wigs in some courts and cases.
  • Replacement – Wigs giving way to new dress symbols or abandoned altogether in favor of contemporary attire.
  • Division – Wigs maintained only for top barristers and judges in higher courts like the Old Bailey.

Much depends on balancing the legal profession’s preservation instincts with outside pressures for practicality and modernization. But the wig’s longevity demonstrates the weight of history and the deliberate pace of reform in UK judicial traditions.


The distinctive wigs worn by barristers and judges in British courtrooms convey the gravity, history, and authority associated with the legal profession. Their origins as 17th century fashion statements evolved into an iconic symbol of the UK judicial system. The styles differentiate legal roles and maintain courtroom decorum, while providing a visual demarcation that focuses attention on the law rather than individuals.

Ongoing debate weighs maintaining this historical legacy against calls for modernization. While accommodations to wig protocols demonstrate some flexibility, wigs remain integral to formal dress in most courts. As an enduring emblem of the solemn duties and rituals of British justice, the judicial wig continues making a powerful statement beyond fashion.