Even though it has never been an American tradition, it’s such an iconic symbol that is still constantly used because it immediately denotes “Law.” It is, of course, the wig.
The wig comes from the British legal system and is part of the system of court dress which includes (or included) a complex system of robes of various styles, colors, and trim. There have been many attempts to get rid of wigs in the British legal system and just as many counter-attempts to hold on to them. After a reform act of 2008, the robe system in Britain has been simplified and wigs are no longer worn in Civil or Family Courts, though wigs are still used in Criminal Courts and all District Courts for all cases. Many former British colonies, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India have abandoned wigs altogether, while most of the Caribbean and African former colonies such as Jamaica and Uganda, and even Hong Kong have retained them. Even if they were completely done away with, however, they would still remain as one of the most powerful symbols of Law.
So where did the tradition of judicial wigs come from and what is/was their function? There is an interesting footnote in one of William Blackstone’s Commentaries in which he asserts that the original purpose of wigs was to hide the fact that there was a church official in the court. Back when not many people could read or write well and there was a need for somebody to keep records of a trial, the easiest thing to do was go to the local monastery and get a cleric to do it. If everyone in court wore a wig, the monk’s tonsure would not be seen and it would hide the fact that there was a cleric in the court (… and yes, the cleric of the court is where we get our Clerk of the Court).
The most popular explanation, though, is that by 1680 (thanks to Charles II), everybody in polite society was wearing wigs, so it was only natural to wear wigs in court as well. The wigs of high society were lavish and outlandish fashion statements and were not considered suitable for judicial proceedings. A system of standard sizes and styles was developed so that the Justice (judge), the Queen’s Counsel, the Barrister, and the Junior Barrister could all be identified by the type of wig they wore. The wigs and robes were supposed to be equalizers so that individual fashion and personality would be kept out of the proceedings. Human nature being what it is, there were still those who pushed the limits in order to have more outstanding wigs, which is why we still have the term “bigwigs.”
As for the detractors and reformers of judicial wigs in modern times, the arguments are that wigs are hot, smelly, and silly looking. Courtrooms in Hong Kong have to be extremely air conditioned because of the judges’ full wigs. Generally, a court official would only purchase one wig for their entire career, and they would become yellow and “fragrant” with age. A yellowed wig was considered a sign of experience and many new barristers actively sought to purchase or inherit old, yellowed wigs.
For those who fight to retain wigs, the arguments are that they still serve the purpose to equalize and identify in the courtroom. Additionally, they argue that the robes and wigs help judicial officials separate their court duties from their personal thoughts and biases when they put on their court attire.
If you would like to take a closer look at the details, constructions, and cost of judicial wigs, check out the wonderfully detailed photos at legaltailor.com