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Can Thus Large Wigs our Reverence Engage?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

On 9th May 1663, the inveterate diarist Samuel Pepys found himself struggling to bow to an increasing male trend to shave their heads in order to accommodate 'borders and periwigs'. Indeed, he wrote 'I have no stomach for it, but that the pains of keeping my hair clean is so great'. Yet 6 months later he succumbed and had a periwig made of his own hair, paying £3 for it and joining a burgeoning elite group of men following the lead of King Charles II and the Duke of York (the future James II), a fashion imported from the French court.

Wigs in various sizes and forms - made of human hair and horsehair - were to come and go in and out of fashion over the next century, but were finally dealt a heavy blow with the introduction of a tax on hair powder by George III in 1795.

A selection of wigs from the RCJ Legal Dress Collection

According to 'A History of Legal Dress in Europe' (W.N.Hargreaves-Mawdsley, 1963), although the new mode soon invaded the law courts, older judges such as Sir Matthew Hale (1609-1676) and Sir Thomas Street (1626-1696) refused the wig until the day they died, leaving it to the next generation of judges to take up the fashion of natural-coloured wigs.

It wasn't until the early 18th century that white and grey powdered wigs covered with pomade and meal gradually became more popular. At this stage there was still no official significance associated with gentlemen of the legal profession wearing wigs, they simply fell in with the fashion of the time, but between 1720-1760, the judge's wig became a 'badge of office', keeping to the larger wigs which they deemed important to their dignity. In William Hogarth's engraving 'The Triple Plea' from around 1725, 'Law, Physick and Divinity' are represented by three bewigged gentlemen. The lawyer on the far left of the image wears the largest, full-bottomed wig of the three, not dissimilar to that of our contemporary judges' costumes. The tradition of doctors and gentlemen of the cloth wearing wigs has long since disappeared.

The Triple Plea (William Hogarth, c1725)

Wigs underwent a small style adjustment in the 1770s when some judges took to wearing smaller wigs for ordinary occasions in court, adopting another fashion of a short wig with one vertical curl at the back above two queues, similar to today's tie wigs worn by barristers. 'Legal Habits: A Brief Sartorial History of Wig & Gown' by Thomas Woodcock notes that 'Various styles and names of wig are associated with the law in the later eighteenth century: broadly speaking, barristers were expected to wear Tie Wigs, attorneys Bob Wigs, and judges Full-bottoms'.

Maintaining these wigs was a serious business, involving 'treating it almost daily with a thick, scented ointment ('pomatum') and powder' (as well as grease and flour) and it wasn't until 1822 that Humphrey Ravenscroft, grandson of Ede and Ravenscroft founder Thomas Ravenscroft, developed a method that simulated a wig's powdered finish, thereby reducing its maintenance. Inevitably this innovation was resisted by some and there is evidence of barristers who continued to grease and powder their wigs well into the twentieth century.

Judges' wigs also evolved from another 15th century fashion, that of wearing a black skull-cap worn over a close-fitting white cap known as the 'coif'. This indicated their status as serjeants-at-law, the medieval Order of the Coif from whose members judges were chosen. The coif covered the wearer's brow and ears and was secured under the chin. By the mid 16th century a third item had been added in the form of the pileus quadratus or biretta, a limp, black, usually cornered cap. This biretta ceased to be worn when wigs were introduced except on formal occasions when it was laid over the wig, and by Victorian times it had come to be associated with the passing of a death sentence.

In 1876 the Judicature Act came into force stating that new judges were not required to take the degree of serjeant-at-law and the coif was no longer worn. Full-bottomed wigs are no longer worn by judges trying cases, but the wigs they wear do still bear a symbolic trace of medieval dress in the small circular depression on the crown, which is a reference to the coif.

Barrister's wig showing circular depression on crown, a reference to the 15th century coif

When women were first called to the Bar in 1922, it was debated whether or not they should be allowed to wear wigs and it was even suggested that they should revert to wearing the medieval black biretta. Eventually it was decided that they should wear the wig 'which shall completely cover and conceal the hair'. Sikh barristers have been allowed to wear their turban instead of the wig since the 1960s.

Currently judges wear the 'Judge's Bench' or 'Tye Wig', which is frizzed all over with no rows of buckles or curls and has two small ties of horsehair at the back, reserving their full-bottomed wigs for ceremonial occasions. Barristers wear 'Tie' or 'Bar' wigs, which are curled at the crown with rows of curls at the back and sides and two hair queues at the back.

The RCJ Legal Dress Collection has many fantastic examples of horsehair wigs; barristers and Judges often purchase second-hand wigs, as traditionally the older a wig looks the more experienced the legal professional. A 19th century full-Bottomed wig of powdered horse-hair is displayed in the exhibition that was worn by Clement Tudway Swanston (QC 1868) and probably by his father.

Wig tins also form part of the collection, including one belonging to the first female High Court Judge, Mrs Justice Lane. When she was appointed in 1965, there was no precedent to accommodate non-masculine conventions, including the writing on the wig tin. The tins were pre-painted 'Mr Justice' so Ede & Ravenscroft had to find a quick way to amend the name to 'Mrs', resulting in the superscript 's' you see in the image below.

Mrs Justice Lane's wig and tin

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