Why do barristers wear wigs?

26 Jul 2017

We’ve all had our own fashion faux pas, but spare a thought for the ‘in crowd’ of the 17th Century.

Along with bringing back Christmas and liking Spaniels, King Charles II can be thanked for making wigs the shell suit of his day.

The fad of wearing a smelly, itchy mass of curls came onto the fashion scene due to syphilis and a pair of self-conscious Kings.

Long hair was a trendy status symbol and a bald dome could lead to public embarrassment. In the 16th century an increasing number of people were contracting the STD. Without widespread treatment with antibiotics, hair loss was a big giveaway that you had contacted the disease. This made the wearing of wigs a necessity.

This changed in 1655 when the King of France started to lose his hair at 17. Worried that baldness would hurt his reputation, Louis XIV started wearing wigs. Five years later, to cover up his greying locks, King Charles II followed his cousin. Courtiers and other aristocrats followed suit and the style tricked down to the upper middle class.

Being left behind by the cool kids, English courtrooms were slower to act. In the early 1680s judicial portraits still showed a natural no wig look, however by 1685 it had become part of the proper court dress.

At first wigs were made of human hair. People in debt would sell their hair to the wigmaker, and there was a macabre trade in the hair of the dead. They were expensive to make and hair hard to find. With much of it coming from horses’ tails or cut off the patients at lunatic asylum or stolen from corpses.

In 1822, Humphrey Ravenscroft (not to be mistaken with the famous Witch Rowena Ravenclaw) invented a legal wig made of whitish-grey horsehair known as a forensic wig that did not need frizzing, curling, perfuming or powdering.

No one really still knows why Wigs are kept, apart from keeping with tradition, those who support it suggests it enforces an authority of the law.

However, over the past decade various attempts to get rid of the wig have been gaining ground. Now barristers need not wear the traditional wig and gown when they stand before the Supreme Court or in civil or family cases with Wigs only being required in criminal cases.

Today a Wig will cost from £425 to £560, although there is a black market also known as eBay where you may be able to grab yourself a bargain.

To read the full article, as featured in Lawyer Monthly, please click here.

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