Wiggypedia: 13 things you never knew about barristers' wigs
The Queen’s Guard has them. Popes have them. The Village People have them. Of course, we’re talking about the headgear that gives the professional a certain edge. You’d think delivering cross-examinations with a Hanoverian hairdo would get a barrister laughed out of the courtroom, but no: the wig makes an advocate thoroughly baddass. But we weren’t quite sure why this should be so: there are too many unknowns surrounding the barrister’s bouffant for us to leave unresolved while we go away for Christmas. So here are 13 things you never knew about wigs…
1. Wig like an Egyptian
The first instances of wigs sprouting onto the scene date back to 3,000BC in Egypt and were either made of human or sheep hair. Judicial wigs today are normally made of horsehair.
2. Hair to the throne
Henry III of France made them on fleek in 1574 and by the 1680s everyone who was anyone was sporting these hairy hats. They were originally used to keep hair clean, but people got all competitive and, as ever, bigger meant better. Some absurd creations were used to demonstrate opulence and social standing. In England, women and actors were the first to pick up on the trend.
3. To periphrase
The original French 'perruque' doesn’t sound much like ‘wig’, but according to Ede and Ravenscroft, that’s the root of the word, which arrived at its current form via anglicised mutations that include 'perewincle', ‘perwycke’ and 'perewig'.
4. It's never gone out of style
'The Tie Wig' was all the rage in 1700s society. It sported two/three rows of horizontal buckled curls along the sides and back of the head. This was adopted by barristers and the style has stayed pretty much the same ever since.
5. Made the same since 1822
Humphrey Ravenscroft (grandson of Thomas, founder of Ede & Ravenscroft) patented a wig that – finally – didn’t get all gross and require treatment with scented unguents and powders. To this day, the wigs are made according to the 1822 patent.
6. Men in the wigging
When women were first called to the Bar in 1922, it was suggested they didn't wear wigs. But by March of that same year that idea was shot down.
7. Not every barrister has to wear a wig
Since the 1960s, Sikh barristers can wear turbans instead, for example.
8. They'll set you back about a month's rent
If novelty hairpieces is a factor in your career choice, then the Royal bearskin busby – rumoured to cost about the same as a barrister’s wig – arguably gives you better bang for your bush. But £700 is the going rate for new barristers, and that's just the wig – there’s all the other bling like collars. For multiple reasons, aim to get a scholarship.
9. Biscuit anyone?
How do you keep your wig looking perfectly coiffed? Some go all out and buy the purpose-built wig tin, affectionately known as the 'biscuit tin'. One barrister we spoke to had better ideas: “Having spent £600 for a wig to then pay £200 for a tin with my initials on, I was like 'no thank you.' So I use a sandwich box and a ladies’ handbag – which is ideal as the bag has all of these compartments to keep everything in place. I mean it doesn't look like a ladies’ handbag and it's a superman sandwich box.”
10. Hair today, gone tomorrow
In the Court of Appeal you wear your wig. In the Supreme Court you don't. In the High and County Courts it's a different story depending on the occasion. For example, in the Chancery Division of the High Court, you only wear a wig in a trial or appeal, but in the Administrative Court it's all the time. In the Magistrates' Court it's a no-no, but in the Crown Court it's a yes-yes, unless it's a bail application in chambers. Got it? And it's a bit taboo to wear them when you're not in court actually advocating. As one barrister source put it, “I strongly dislike people wearing their wigs and collars outside of court. It's one thing if you're nipping over the road to grab something to eat. But other than that, I think 'idiot'.”
11. Are they awks?
One newly minted tenant at a leading London crime set told us, “they don't fall off when you bow or lean forward as easily as you might expect. They're not that itchy either. Frankly, you sort of forget you're wearing it after a while.” However, more seasoned practitioners counter that “it's sweaty, unhygienic and cumbersome. I carry a suitcase every day filled with books, briefs and files. So I'm already full and then I've got to carry another bag – it's just so much.”
12. It's more of a crime thing
“They definitely have more significance in criminal proceedings, not least because that's pretty much the only place you see them being used these days. Commercial proceedings are brought by commercial people who have commercial interests and, I imagine little interest in seeing counsel dress up,” suggested one junior. A City commercial pupil added: “I don't think they have a mystical/esoteric/'wow' factor, or induce a sense of respect or reverence, which might be the effect they have in criminal courts. Wigs don't mean much in a commercial setting as i) they are rarely worn, and ii) when they are, commercial clients recognise them as a redundant adornment.”
13. Gettin Wiggy wiv it
“I'm quite ambivalent towards wigs,” one pupil told us. “They are a sort of amusing anachronistic decoration, which look quite silly on the one hand. But on the other, it's their symbolism of the independence of the advocate which I do appreciate.” Then does the future of the wig look under threat? “I don't think anything else would work; it's a wig or nothing,” posited one tenant. “We can't all pull off black velvet Tudor bonnets like Brenda [Hale].” Brenda is a hard act to follow. "I find it hard to dislike them,” says barrister Michael Wilkinson of 18 St John Street Chambers. “It's really a rather remarkable feat that we can deal so seriously and forensically with issues of terrible importance to people, whilst wearing what can only look like a silly costume.” If a little pretentious, they're an important part of the barrister’s identity, says Wilkinson: “When you put your wig on, it doesn't really matter who you are, where you're from, whether you're a man or a woman, rich or poor, god-follower or not, or whatever your political views are. Those all count for nought. When you've got your wig on, you perform a function, and you have a right to be heard.”
Find out more about the realities of being a barrister by reading our Chambers Reports.
This feature was first published in December 2016.