The last thing a junior barrister wants is a new wig. “The darker and older looking the better,” says Jonathan Hill, sales consultant in the legal department clothing at Thresher and Glenny.
Unlike the rest of a barristers’ apparel, the state of the wig is not judged by how clean it looks but how aged it appears to be. The aim of most barristers is to achieve a wig with a worn and matured look to create the impression of experience when standing before a judge.
“None of them likes to look the new boy,” says David John Harris, manager of the legal department at Ede and Ravenscroft, which has been manufacturing wigs for barristers, judges and royalty since 1726. “If it is really grubby looking, it looks like they’ve been around,” he says.
Barristers will go to great lengths to make their wigs look fashionably old. There are a number of tried and tested ways to age one, including stamping on it, kicking it in the dirt, giving it to kids, letting the dog at it, or shaking it in a Hoover bag.
“Nobody wants a wig to look ’Daz’ white,” says David Burt, chambers manager at 36 Essex Court. “There is certainly a majority who are pleased when the newness disappears.”
The wife of a well-known barrister, now a judge, threw his wig in the washing machine to get it clean. It came out looking brand new and he was furious that she had ruined the look that had taken him years to achieve.
Thresher and Glenny manufactures four different blended colours of wigs. One of its most popular models is a dark blonde style, which is often chosen by senior barristers who have lost their wigs.
Ede and Ravenscroft is best known for its standard design barrister’s wig but it also makes an older style with a peak front. The variation in wig designs is slight, and it requires an educated eye to distinguish between them.
“Our style is a bit more ergonomic,” says Hill. “It is more arch shaped in the front.” Thresher and Glenny also claims its wigs are lighter than those of Ede and Ravenscroft.
A new wig from Thresher and Glenny costs £349 compared with £345 at Ede and Ravenscroft. Both are hand crafted and can be bought off the shelf or made to measure.
Wigs should last for 100 years but are often damaged by perspiration. Ede and Ravenscroft suggests cleaning wigs every four to five years, while Thresher and Glenny recommends every 25 to 30 years. “The longer you leave it, the better it is,” says Hill.
While there is a market for second-hand wigs, the only way generally to find out about them is by word of mouth. Many chambers post lists of wigs for sale or of retiring members who are selling or giving their wigs away.
The problem is that the older a wig looks the less likely someone is to give it away. “You see some wigs hanging on by a thread,” says Martin Hart, senior clerk at Anthony Scrivener’s Chambers. “People get very attached to them and are loathe to let them go.”
Wigs originated in France and were originally made from human hair. The French dropped the use of wigs in criminal courts, but the English and many of their colonies carried on.
The first English wigs were a mix of mohair and horse hair; today they are made almost exclusively from South American horse hair.
There are no official regulations specifying that wigs be worn in English courts.
The code of conduct for the Bar of England and Wales states only that: “In court a barrister’s appearance should be decorous and his dress when robes are worn should be compatible with them.”
The current position of the Bar Council and the Lord Chancellor’s Department is that only barristers be allowed to wear wigs. “On balance, the view is that solicitor advocates should not have wigs, because a wig is the mark of a barrister, and the public has the right to know who they are dealing with,” says a spokesman for the Bar Council.
As to alternatives, the Bar Council says: “The Professional Conduct Committee has no objection to suitably coloured turbans without wigs.” They are also open to the use of suitable head-dresses for Muslim women.