Are you one of those attorneys who frets about what to wear to court? Do you worry about whether your tie matches your shirt or your shoes match your tights? Or are you one of those attorneys who is stupefyingly bored by your court options, because really, how creative can you be with the standard lawyer palette of brown, navy, black, and black with pinstripes? If only you could hurtle yourself back in time, when courtroom dress was somehow simultaneously completely uniform and completely over the top.

640px-Common_Pleas

Daring Orange Robes at The Court of Common Pleas

Remember learning about the Court of Common Pleas? You probably got stuck hearing about it in one of the early weeks of your Civil Procedure class, likely on the same day you learned about things like the writ of elegit. In England, the Court of Common Pleas handled all matters that didn’t involve the king, but you wouldn’t know it from the fancy orangey-red robes the justices got to wear. These fabulous outfits were donned circa 1460. Not sure who got to rock the tunic and tights look seen in the foreground, but we really hope it was the lawyers. Can you imagine showing up to court in that? Think how confident and stylish you’d feel.

Sir_William_Blackstone_from_NPG

Sir William Blackstone Looked As Great As You Would Think

Seriously, look at that outfit. Wig AND red Superman cape AND neck thingy AND what we are just going to call wrist dickies from here on out. They should put that picture on every  textbook that cites him. Maybe then we would pay attention. Well, probably not.

1stLordColeridge (1)

A Stylish Farewell to Common Pleas

Thanks to something insanely complicated that we could not possibly keep track of, in large part because we dozed through that whole History of the British Courts lecture in our first year, the Court of Common Pleas was dissolved or subsumed into some other court or something else we cannot follow. But by the time it went away in the mid-1800s, we had judges rocking the fur-trimmed robe and a really lengthy (and probably very heavy) version of that weird wig we have come to know and love from snippets of British courtroom dramas.

WilliamCushing

SCOTUS Used To Be So Fly

Pre-John Marshall, the SCOTUS judges got done up like their British counterparts, complete with wig and striped robe. But then they got all boring. Well, until Chief Judge William Rehnquist, who decided to put those gold stripes on his robe so he could look like a Lord Chancellor.

3959619619

inher06

In The 1920s and 1930s, Everything Got Really Sweaty

Remember Inherit the Wind? The thinly-veiled story of the Scopes monkey trial featured Spencer Tracy and Fredric March practically dripping right through the movie screen. If you have seen the movie more than once, it is the sweaty suspender-wearing courtroom scenes you remember most.

Gregory Peck glistened through many of the courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird, but he had the decency to keep his coat and vest on.

atticus-finch

Doar-to-receive-Medal-of-Freedom-MB1I68TI-x-large

Morning Clothes: Not Just For British Royal Weddings

We always forget that the Solicitor General of the United States is still required to wear morning dress to court. Do you know how hard it is to find a picture of this? Going  back to Thurgood Marshall was the only option, at least without leaving the laziness of Google. Striped trousers, cutaway coat, looking for all the world like Prince Charles on his second wedding day.

prince_charles_and_camilla_parker_bowles_wedding

Fun fact: the equivalent to morning clothes for ladies is, of course, a formal gown such as the one Camilla Parker Bowles wears above. As the only female Solicitor General ever, Elena Kagan was spared that indignity and got to wear regular suits.

Ede_and_Ravenscroft_-_Robe_Makers___Tailors_since_1689_Legal

Never Change, British Lawyers

No, literally, never change, because you are not allowed to. You have to dress the same way you did in the 1680s, basically. Upside, your wig is slightly less disgusting, even though it is still really expensive.

Most new barristers find their way near the Inns of Court to Ede & Ravenscroft, England’s leading wigmaker. […] Ede & Ravenscroft’s white horsesehair, or “forensic,” wig was patented in 1822. (The white horsehair replaced black; the black horsehair wig had ended a grisly trade in human hair.) The forensic wig requires no regular curling or powdering and maintains a fresh scent. This convenience comes at a price: Wigs range from £400 to £2,000 ($600 to $3,000). Taxpayers foot the bill for judges’ wigs; barristers, who pay for their own, sometimes shop for used wigs. Most barristers invest in one wig for a lifetime, and a discolored or disheveled hairpiece is a mark of a long career—one’s own or someone else’s.

The idea of buying a used wig that one has to then wear every time one goes to court is pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Also, it means that British barristers will always look like Charles Laughton…

12807490344_ba1bc060b9_b (2)

…or John Lithgow Cleese.

A_Fish_Called_Wanda_1238407028_3_1988

No, it does not look any less odd on women, in case you were wondering.

bunteto-ugyved

My-cousin-vinny

Under No Circumstances Should You Do This

Like it was going to be possible to write about courtroom dress without going here.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff Lowe says:

    Fun article. One minor correction: On Slide No. 8, that looks a bit more like John Cleese rather than John Lithgow. Both terrific. Hardly interchangeable.

  2. Assaf says:

    Thanks for the article! Small correction: on page 8 it is John Cleese, not John Lithgow.

Leave a Reply