Wigs in Sydney’s courts: a trend or a classic?

Legal attire of a Silk. Photo courtesy of Vladimir Kravchenko, who has saved me from Google images. Nice change, no?

Apparently, I have some sort of wig fetish. Legal wigs in particular. It all began with a foreigner pointing out to me how strange barristers’ wigs are as we walked by the Supreme Court in the city. She found it quite amusing that such an archaic thing as a wig was still in use as part of Sydney’s legal attire.

Then I started toying with the idea of writing an article on wigs for sydneysiderblog.com, fantasising about how I could make such a thing fit … how to make it the perfect fit

I started talking to people, friends, frenemies, foes, even random people on the street about wigs. And now it is time … the ultimate indulgence … (apologies to all people who have been talked to/harrassed by me with wigs, I promise it’s just a phase … a sweet, sweet phase)

Me trying to stalk a barrister for a kodak moment. Why did they run?!

Wigs are usually not something to be taken too seriously. Fancy dress parties, drag queens, sometimes pets (thus attired all of their own accord, scout’s honour). My old supervisor at work, Spunkrat Steven* used to put on a wig at night time for his own enjoyment, even suggested I try it (I didn’t, and now I brim with bitter regret). But then there is the taboo wig – the legal wig.

How has this wig thing survived, why is it still so serious? Well (please just let me tell you, whisper to you sweet little nothings) the wig basically started as a trend. The trend began because:

 a) Aristocrats were using face powder that had lead in it, which made their hair fall out. The bald, ‘egg-head’ look wasn’t exactly de rigueur;

b) At the time, it was pretty hard to wash hair, so people’s real hair wasn’t quite the sex and was full of nits. So people went bald and faked it;

c) Because all the aristocrats started doing it, everyone started doing it. Because the upper class is the best class, and everyone else must be crushed into order, like cockroaches.

King Charles wasn’t acquainted with pantene

Ede and Ravenscroft, which is a company/temple for wigs in London supplies most barristers and judges around the world with wigs. A great article on their website on the history of legal attire (which, despite its great size, I devoured gladly) gave some examples of the mood regarding wigs at the time. For instance, Eustace Budgell wrote in The Spectator about the increased attention bestowed on the wearer by a particular type of wig:

“I have indeed myself observed that my Banker ever bows lowest to me when I wear my full bottom’d Wig …”

He also remarks how atrocious it is when the grammar of wigs is incorrectly followed, discussing “a very meanly dress’d” gentleman in a “short wig, answerable to the rest of his apparely’ for ‘appearing in a Dress so much beneath his Quality and Estate.”

Soon enough, people started accessorising their professions. It’s always been about the accessories, you know … about having the right look. The first wigs used in the law courts, “full bottomed wigs”, were really big, because, after all, size does matter. How big’s yours?

“Seven big wigs stand before me, but only one can …”

By the time the barristers with big wigs grew older and became judges, the next generation of barristers had a less superficial view. They didn’t mind the smaller wig. They were more of the school of thought that “it doesn’t matter how big your wig is, it’s more about how you use it”. So they started using tie wigs.

Then, naturally, the wig disappeared as a trend. Bishops, judges and barristers kept them, but then the bishops got trendy and specialised in obnoxious hats …

Strangely, the trend of the wig lasted in legal professions until this very day. There was something about the wig (a certain je ne sais quoi) that tickled the fancy of people in the legal scene. It was argued at the time that the wig helped maintain the anonymity of the judge/barrister, but it’s not exactly a balaclava … could judges and barristers wear balaclavas? Seems controversial, but wigs were once controversial, fashion is controversial, Karl Lagerfeld is controversial but he might approve of the balaclava if combined with the right fingerless gloves.

Karl could work wonders for our legal system

Not many countries still wear the wig. England carries on, Hong Kong tries to keep the fire of wig passion alive, some African countries still cherish the touch of the wig. Ireland phased it out last year (what a sick, twisted country). And then there is Australia, where the wigs still kiss the heads of many in the legal realm, at least in NSW (WA left the party … typical).

The committee of the Auckland District Law Society wrote [regarding the abandonment of the wig from regular use] that “courts do not exist to provide archaic pageants but to resolve disputes and every effort should be made to show that they are modern, business-like places rather than ones removed from mainstream society.”

I’m not sure if an archaic pageant is really out of touch with mainstream society … I mean, what about all those BBC period dramas? People love them and the wigs (good ol’ Cranford and the like). I think the time is ALWAYS ripe for an archaic pageant. 

“My wig still brings all the boys to the yard …”

Some argue that the law needs to maintain a mystique that makes it be seen as a higher, greater-than-thou authority. And that wigs help maintain this mystique and the institution itself. Are these wigs really out of touch with mainstream society?

I have had difficulty in locating the anti-wig barristers or judges of Sydney. Maybe that is because I secretly don’t wish to meet with those who would destroy that which I hold so tenderly… but I don’t know.

But I met with two barristers to lather in this favourite subject of mine. Mr. Chrysostomou, who has been wearing the wig since he was twenty-three, is pro-wig, because in his view it helps maintain the etiquette of the courts and has a psychological effect on both the barrister cherishing the kiss of the wig and others in the presence of a curly majesty (i.e. a wig), helping to ‘deindividualise people’. But in another respect, he believes the wig is just a part of the trade, like ‘a plumber’s toolkit – something that is necessary in the trade and that’s that.’ He also mentioned some fond memories of going to Ede and Ravenscroft to be measured for his wig by a charming old lady who looked like Gollum (had wigs given her unnaturally long life?)

Ms. McBride, after a chat about the wigs, kindly showed us the full attire. Once again, Vladimir Kravchenko works his magic

Another barrister I met with, Ms. McBride, provided me with a different perspective:

“Why do referees in sport matches wear uniforms? Why do policemen wear uniforms? There’s something about the uniform … you’re far more likely to do what you’re told with a police officer in a uniform than you are if it’s just somebody pulling you over to the side of the road.” (But personally I think that depends on how attractive the latter is)

Ms. McBride also finds that if you’re dressed in a professional capacity,  people are less likely to take the outcome personally against you. Furthermore, she also suggested that:

“[when wearing a wig] even though your face is fully viewed, somehow it’s not quite as easy to identify someone wearing a wig after court and run up and say abusive or terrible things, because everybody looks a bit the same so no one is quite sure which one is which.”

I suppose it’s difficult for anyone to explain exactly the purpose of the wig and whether the cost (around $1400) or the itchiness can really be accounted for. I can’t account for it … but I cannot fight it, I’m not trying to hide it. Are you?

Are wigs really any different from hairstyles? Some are professional, some, like some wigs, show that a person is “less curious in the furniture of the inward recesses of the Skull.”

The wigs will be phased out eventually, Ms. McBride assured me. But is it a trend, or or should it remain a classic? I don’t know. I actually like them being around, as you might have guessed.

A friend of mine who is studying law came up with an enlightening perspective on the situation: get yo wig did

“Curly wig? No. If I become a barrister, I’ll want my wig straightened.”

I guess people readily underestimate tradition. But what of fashion?


*Spunkrat Steven’s real name is not Spunkrat Steven, because he might sue me and I like dealing with wigs but not that much

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4 Responses to Wigs in Sydney’s courts: a trend or a classic?

  1. Darshil Shah says:

    A really cool article. I’ve always seen the wig as being a part of the law person, almost like an extension of their body.

    My wonder in all this is why are they always white? Wouldn’t it feel strange to see a 20-something lawyer or barrister wear on these white wigs? Or indeed to see Ms. Mcbride wear this over her long brown hair. I guess it might be to make it stand out as much as possible but maybe we can accept these wigs over the years to come by simply updating them a bit rather than phase them out?

    Keep blogging.

  2. harryrenwick says:

    thanks for your support, I truly appreciate it. These wigs are such strange things, aren’t they? I can’t remember exactly why they are white, but from the articles I read (so very willingly …) it has something to do with the fact that at some stage, there was a requirement (maybe for reasons of hygiene) that wigs had to be powdered, and the powder was white or gave a white tinge. Eventually, rather than powdering the wigs, they started making the wigs from white horse hair and it has remained the same since. I wonder if they will update them at some stage, maybe having them straightened is the answer after all …

  3. anna zarasyan says:

    great article on such a difficult subject… before i read it i’d thought that my point of view was to stick to the tradition, since that many people for that long could not have possibly been wrong. but now, after taking your spin on this, i’m no longer sure how i feel, i guess a bit confused. it has definitely shifted my perspective. i don’t know what i think. but i feel that there is something profoundly disgusting in the texture and the colour of it(sickening pale dirty grey).this colour is good for stone, but for hair??? is the colour meant to leave us with the impression that worriying about cleaning is too mundane for those who judge others? curly or straight, I don’t know who could possibly look good in it. i’m under impression that the ‘legal’ wig is not meant to look good at all, and this is why it never does. as far as how it ‘sits’ in the contemporary aesthetics…well more than ever in our history we’re visually driven and i must admit whenever i see the wig, i look away…but may be that’s the idea. than it works. balaklava’s by lagerfield would be much nicer no doubt.

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