WHY? - Straight from the horse's head
12 November 2001
For most people, the wearing of wigs is one of the most distinctive aspects of the British justice system. When the Lord Chancellor's Department considered changing the rules concerning court dress in the mid-1990s, it found that lawyers and clients alike wanted to retain the tradition of wearing wigs in court.
Some of Eve & Ravenscroft's finest
But why? One reason may be that wigs give a degree of anonymity. Barristers and judges look different in their wigs so angry clients, particularly in the criminal courts, are less likely to recognise them on the street. From the client's point of view, it shows exactly who it is they are paying for in court.
Recently,some lawyers have expressed their disaffection with the tradition. The Commercial Bar Association (Combar) recently voted, with a majority of 57 per cent, in favour of the abolition of wigs for civil cases. This followed the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's statement in June that the wearing of wigs is "an anachronism".
"It can get very smelly at the end of a long trial"
11 King's Bench Walk
People started wearing wigs in the 12th century, possibly because disease made them lose their hair. Today there are three types of wigs worn in English and Welsh courts. The most common is the bar wig. This is worn by barristers and is the same whether you have just been called to the bar or are a Queen's Counsel (QC). They are not worn in family courts, though, as they may scare the children. Nor are wigs worn by solicitor-advocates.
Three curls at the side of a wig denote that it is a legal wig. Wigs worn in the royal households have two curls. The curl on a Scottish court wig goes the opposite way.
Judges own a full-bottomed wig worn for ceremonial purposes only and a bench wig that is worn to work on a day-to-day basis. This has two tails but no curls and the hair is crimped rather than curled.
The wigs are made from horse hair. It is bought by the sheaf and historically comes from China as, unlike European horse hair, it has not been tampered with. A continuous length of hair is needed so that it can be knotted into curls (the weft). A few hundred years ago mane hair would have been used predominantly
for ceremonial wigs or bench wigs while barristers would have used tail hair. Mane hair does not need to be treated or bleached whereas tail hair must be heavily bleached and cleaned.
A bar wig takes 44 working man-hours to make. The wigs are handmade by constant threading and knotting and are available in four colours: white, dark blond, light grey and grey. White is popular in the Caribbean and West Africa, while in the UK blond and light grey are the most popular. It is a myth thatwigs, like hair, change colour as they age.
For a made-to-measure wig at least 12 different head measurements are taken, although they can be bought off the peg. As you sweat into the wig it moulds to the shape of your head eventually becomes like a second skin.
In the past, wigs were powdered to keep mites away. Ideally they should be kept on a wig stand, although a tin with holes or a wooden box will do. If kept properly a wig should last forever, but if kept in an airless container the base of the wig (the lace) would begin to rot.
Wigmakers Stanley Ley say that the oldest wig that it has cleaned and redressed was 94 years old and had been passed down through four generations of the same family.
But not everyone looks after their wigs so well: Stanley Ley received a host of torn wigs that had been used for basketball practice at one of the inns. This could have proved an expensive game; a judge's ceremonial wig costs more than £1,500 while a bar wig costs more than £300.
But, as wig expert Nicholas Fugler, bespoke tailor at Stanley Ley, says: "Barristers and judges become who they are in their garb. It's almost like armour. Historically barristers have been very dapper - I think it's to do with confidence."
Me and my wig: Richard Leiper, 11 King's Bench Walk
"I went to Ede & Ravenscroft to buy my wig in 1996. You go into the bowels at the back of the shop and the lady who has hand-stitched it comes and checks your head and your colouring and descends into her workshop and comes up with the one she thinks is best. They are all hand-crafted and you have to sign some sort of book that has every wig that Ede & Ravenscroft has ever sold."
They make it into some sort of historical event. It's lasted very well. I do lots of employment tribunals so I don't wear it as often as some people. It can get very smelly at the end of a long trial. Then you have to air it before putting it back in its tin. I've heard that you can put them in the washing machine but I haven't tried it. They're a chore more than anything."