Odyssey of a legal dress

The Judges’ dress is a traditional attire of considerable historical significance. It is a symbol of authority of office-bearers; helps instil respect for the law; emphasises the impersonal and disinterested approach of the Judge; helps court identify who’s who; and provide a degree of security to the wearers, through anonymity.1 The command which a legal dress holds has been illuminated by the words of Justice Stewart Fowler referring to the Family Court, “the reality was that when Judges sat without robes they were not regarded by many clients as being Judges,  and you had clients saying things like ‘I am not going to cop this. I am waiting until the real Judge comes along’ “.2 As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day”, the respect, pride and envy for the legal dress did not built overnight. It took centuries together to weave and enrich the trust and confidence of the people in the legal dress. Let me leaf into the annals of the legal dress.

The oldest formally created order of barristers at the English and Irish bar were Serjeant-at-Law, having been brought into existence as a body of elite group of lawyers who took much of the work in the central common law courts, by Henry II. The traditional clothing of a Sarjeant-at-law consisted of a coif, a robe and a furred cloak.3 Only Sarjeant-at-Law could become Judges of the common law courts, the legal dress of the Judges followed that of Sarjeant-at-Law with the variation in cut and colour of the robe. From the 14th century onward the Judges added black skull cap to their head gear. By the reign of Henry VIII the Judges had also taken up the pileus quadratus, a four cornered black hat of limp, soft material. The attire for the Judges came to be recognised and standardised during the second and third quarters of the 14th century during the rule of British King Edward III. Basically, it was for attending Royal Court. The fabric and other material for robes was given to Judges as a grant from the Crown. The Judges would wear violet robes in the winter and green robes in the summer. The green summer robe was outdated by 1534 and only black and violet robes were generally donned. On 4-6-1635 the Commission of Westminster passed a Royal Decree regulating judicial dress. This document came to be known as the Judges’ Rules of 1635, aimed to codify the attire worn by the judiciary. This regulation on legal dress mainly provided that Judges should wear sad colour dress;  must wear white lawn coif followed by a black skull cap and black cornered cap; must have two gowns, one scarlet and the other black or violet; must be in clean shaven face and short hair; foreign fashion and other accessories were forbidden; must wear pair of bands – two short tails of white cambric hanging down from the front of the collar, etc.The pair of bands, which is of white colour, represents the “‘Tablets of the Law” or “‘Tablets of Stone”.  As per Christian belief, tablets were used by Moses for inscribing the ten commandments. Thus, the pair of bands signifies the upholding of the laws of the God and of men. In the second and third decades of 17th century, during the reign of King Louis XIII the wigs begin to assume the aura of prestige in France. It was in vogue during the reign of King Louis XIV in France. In England, after the execution of Charles I in 1649 his son, Charles II fled to France. After his return from exile to England and accession to the throne the French fashion of wig wearing started gaining ground in England. By the 1680s, Judges and Barristers began wearing wigs as a part of legal dress.

Wigs were not readily accepted as a part of legal dress. Judges and Barristers were reluctant to wear it. “Who would have supposed,” wrote John Campbell (1799-1861), subsequently Lord Campbell the Lord Chancellor, in the Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England: From the Earliest Times Till the Reign of Queen Victoria (1845),  “that this grotesque ornament,  fit only for an African Chief, would be considered indispensably necessary for the administration of justice in the middle of the nineteenth century?”

Sir Frank Douglas MacKinnon (former High Court Judge, England):

 “Wigs are not really part of the legal uniform, as robes are. Wigs are simply a fashion in head-dress that was once universal for gentlemen, and was given up by all of them except bishops, Judges and barristers, towards the end of the eighteenth century. Bishops, with the permission of William IV, gave them up in 1832;  Judges and Barristers retain them still.”4

It should be noted that the death of Charles II in 1685 was a defining moment in the style of gown.   The double welts of velvet running vertically on the upper part of the sleeve were really distinctive feature of the old Bar gown. As Sir Henry Chauncy (1632-1719), invited to the Bar of the Middle Temple in 1656, proudly called the old Bar gown, a “Noble Robe”. But then, on the death of Charles II, the Bar entered a period of mourning and wore plain black gown with pleated shoulders and bell-shaped sleeves tapered at the elbow with two buttons. Sir Henry Chauncy called this modern gown an “ignominious habit”. The wearing of modern gown continued to the periods of mourning that followed the deaths of Queen Mary, in 1694, and of Queen Anne, in 1714. This modern design of gown was assumed by the Bar and retained ever since as it was cheap and of lighter material.5

Hood was a part of customary mourning gown. It was a head-gear. But, by 1600, the practice was to have this hanging over the left shoulder. The modern gown reflected the accessory “hood” by an “appendage suspended over the back of the left shoulder by a long strip of stuff which hangs in front”.6 India, being a British colony, have the descendance of British legal system. As a corollary, the British court etiquettes, legal dress radiated the courts in India. A glimpse of aura surrounded to the legal dress could be fascinated from the reporting in The Times of India of the swearing-in ceremony of the Judges of the Federal Court at its inauguration. The words were, “All were in their handsome Judge’s robes. Each wore his wig, his Judge’s black suit with knee breeches, silk stockings and polished buckled shoes; and over these full rich robes of black silk lavishly embroidered with gold.”7

Provision for costumes to be worn by judicial officers in India has been enshrined in respective Court Manual. For instance, in Maharashtra, it provides that a male officer shall wear long trousers, preferably white, or dhoti or surwar, white shirt, and white band, black coat and advocate’s gown.   Lady Judicial Officers shall wear, black and full or half sleeve jacket or blouse, white collar, stiff or soft, with white bands with advocate’s gown, sarees, or long skirts (white or black) or flare.8 With the gaining of independence, India passed a statute9 governing and regulating court dress for lawyers. It provided that dress shall be sober and dignified. Male lawyers shall wear, (a) a black buttoned-up coat, chapkan, achkan, black sherwani and white bands with advocate’s gown; or (b) a black open breast coat, white collar, stiff or soft, and white bands with advocates’ gowns. In either case long trousers (white, black, striped or grey) or dhoti. For female lawyers it provided, (a) black and full or half-sleeve jacket or blouse, white collar, stiff or soft, and white bands with advocates’ gowns; (b) sarees or long skirts (white or black or any mellow or subdued color without any print or design) or flares (white, black or black-striped or gray): provided that the wearing of advocates’ gown shall be optional except when appearing in the Supreme Court or in a High Court. Provided further that in court other than the Supreme Court, High Court, District Court, Sessions Court or City Civil Court, a black tie may be worn instead of bands10.

The Judges of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) wear a robe – dark blue velvet gowns with a white bib – which they wear over their suits.

As far as agents and counsel for appearing States go, the Tribunal does not prescribe any specific dress code; they often wear the dress/robes of their respective domestic courts11.

Courts are the temple of justice. One should maintain its serenity and purity in every aspect. The dress reflects a sense of decorum, sincerity and seriousness of purpose. One of the earliest records of importance to the legal dress could be traced to an entry dated 30-10-1697 in A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714 (printed 1854) compiled by the annalist and bibliographer Narcissus Luttrell (1657-1732). It states that “Yesterday [that is,  the first day of the Michaelmas term in the legal calendar]  Lord Chief Justice Holt ordered all Barristers to appear next term in their proper gowns,  and not in mourning ones, as they have done since the death of King Charles; otherwise will not hear them.”12 The distinct uniform of the legal profession was a recognition and a standard of discipline in the court rooms. Barristers were not to be heard in court without wig and gown. In a recorded occasion relating to Mr Bodkin on a bail application “who happened to be in the court at that time but not in his wig and gown” in R. v. Whitaker13. As a result, he was “neither seen not heard” by Coleridge, J. Fortunately – not least for Mr Whitaker – Mr Bodkin retired and having attired himself in a wig and gown returned into court and obtained bail for his client.

Interestingly, in Chhaganlal Ishwardas Shah v. Emperor,14 the Bombay High Court was considering the question of whether improper dress in court can constitute contempt of court. In this case, an assessor had appeared at a Session Court in Nadiad dressed in a “paheran”, cap and scarf.  He had been fined ₹ 3 for being improperly dressed and for not wearing a coat. Disagreeing with the Sessions Judge, Beaumont, C.J. of the Bombay High Court wrote, “well, that is rather a matter of taste”. The Court found that there is no rule as to the dress of assessors, and intention of the assessor was “to insure his own comfort, not to insult the Court”.

Continuing in the same line, in United States of America the law does not specify a particular dress for attorneys. However, in consonance with ethics and professional requirement it is expected from attorneys to wear business dress maintaining the decorum in the courtroom and reasonably related to the proper administration of justice15. So also, women attorneys are expected to wear appropriate and modest dress16. DBN (pseudo name) an attorney at law was censured for not properly dressing and appearing in the Court17 without observing the dress code18. This is not an end.  The sign “pajamas are not appropriate attire for District Court”, was posted outside the courtroom of Judge Craig Long, Columbia County, Pennsylvania. The Judge got compelled to dangle the sign as people were not dressing appropriately for court19.

During the corona lockdown period the physical court hearing has paved the way for virtual court hearing. An incident occurred in the virtual court of Justice S.P. Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court. Reportedly, an advocate appeared to argue a bail matter through videoconferencing in his vest. Making a strong objection to this, Justice Sharma adjourned the hearing and called upon the Bar Association to ensure that all its members adhere to a proper dress code. It is not that dress code in the Court is only mandated for the Judges and lawyers. Even bureaucrats and common public is expected to be in a sober and decent dress as it is a symbolic of certain things. In an incident, a senior officer of the Rajasthan Government was chided by the Bench of J. Chelameswar and Sanjay Kishan Kaul, JJ. of the Supreme Court of India for appearing in an inappropriate dress.20   So then, two Czech nationals – a man dressed in black shorts and vest and a woman in a short skirt and sleeveless top – were fined ₹ 2500 for not dressing properly in the court premises21.

Having come a long way it is necessary to understand what are the perceptions of legal dress today.   What do people think about legal dress? In an argument for their preservation it is canvassed that it symbolises the authority of office-holders, helps instils a respect for the law, emphasises the impersonal and disinterested approach of the Judge, etc. In an argument against their preservation it is pointed that it intimidate victims and witnesses, encourage self-importance in legal professionals, provoke derision at the legal system as outdated and backward looking.22

Lord Justice Taylor23 in an interview with the BBC in 1990 said he believed that “at a stroke we could disarm a good deal of public misunderstanding of the legal profession if we stopped wearing wigs and gowns in court”.24

I may sum up with the views of Chief Justice Austin Asche25:

 “A lot of people would say so what, that’s what you want, you want a friendly court. Well yes, you do, but there is a feeling of dignity and a feeling amongst the public too that a person who is sitting there without wig and gown or whatever is not quite as important as the fellow sitting up there in wig and gown.…”26


Senior Civil Judge, Khamgaon,  District Buldana,  Maharashtra.

1 Court Working Dress in England and Wales, Lord Chancellor’s Department Consultation Paper (May 2003).

2 Helen Rhoades and Shurlee Swain,  A Bold Experiment?  Reflections on the Early History of the Family Court (2011) 22(1) Australian Family Lawyer 11, 20.

3 Pulling (1884) p. 214.

4 Sir Bernard Sugerman,  The Wearing of the Wig (1973) 47 Australian Law Journal 39.

5 J.H. Baker,  History of gowns Worn at the English Bar (1975) 18-19.

6 Ibid.

7 An article by Advocate Abhinav Chandrachud in frontline.thehindu.com, 5-6-2020.

8 Para 562, Ch. XXX, Civil Manual and Para 2, Ch. XXVII Criminal Manual, issued by the High Court of Judicature at Bombay.

9 Advocates Act, 1961.

10 S. 49(1)(gg) of the Advocates Act,  1961 r/w Chapter IV,  Part VI,  Bar Council of India Rules,  1975.

11 E-mail communication from ITLOS.

12 Legal Habits: A Brief Sartorial History of Wig, Robe and Gown, by Good Books (G.B. Publications Ltd.).

13 (1844) 8 JP Jo 390.

14 1933 SCC OnLine Bom 96

15 Sandstorm  v.  State of Florida, 309 So  2d  17 (Fla  App  1975).

16 Peck  v.  Stone, 32  AD 2d 506,  304 NYS 2d 881 (1969).

17 In the High Court of South Africa Limpopo Local Division, Thohoyandou.

18 Moyo v. Minister of Police, Case No. 749/2014, order dated 6-2-2017, www.saflii.org (last visited on 17-10-2020).

19 Loweringthebar.net.

20 www.outlookindia.com,  dated 23-3-2018.

21https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/dress-code-for-litigants-bombay-high-court-believes-so/articleshow/10987270.cms, dated 5-12-2011.

22 Court Working Dress in England and Wales, Lord Chancellor’s Department Consultation Paper (May 2003).

23 Peter Taylor, Baron Taylor of Gosforth was Lord Chief Justice of England from 1992 until 1996.

24 J. Rozenberg, What Price Tradition?  Time for a Change in Court Dress?  (1996) 28 Bracton Law Journal 75.

25 Keith John Austin Asche,  AC,  QC was the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory,  Australia.

26 Helen Rhoades and Shurlee Swain,  A Bold Experiment?  Reflections on the Early History of the Family Court (2011) 22(1) Australian Family Lawyer 11,  20.

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