London, May 9 (Reuters): They have been wearing them since the 17th century when an elegant fake curl was the height of men’s fashion, but Britain’s lawyers were in turmoil today at the prospect of a future without their horse-hair wigs.
The head of the British legal profession is studying whether to change the dress code for lawyers and judges, including the itchy white courtroom wigs that are as much a symbol of Britain as Big Ben, mushy peas and red double-decker buses.
“There is no justification for retaining working court dress on the grounds of tradition alone — our courts are not a tourist attraction,” the office of Lord Chancellor Irvine of Lairg declared in a paper announcing the review.
The paper said 60 per cent of people surveyed in man-on-the-street interviews wanted to see some change in the dress code.
But barristers were not pleased.
“Deprive me of my wig' The idea’s ridiculous!” declared John Mortimer, the barrister and author whose fictional creation Horace Rumpole is probably the best-known lawyer in England.
“A barrister without a wig would be like a doctor without a stethoscope; a cook without a spoon... or a middle manager without a flip chart,” he told The Times newspaper.
Supporters of wigs and robes argue that they help instil respect for the law. Prosecutors and criminal court judges say the wigs help protect them from offenders who might recognise them in street.
But the Lord Chancellor’s office said it was concerned that the practice could “intimidate victims and witnesses, especially the young and vulnerable” or even “provoke derision at the legal system as outdated and backward looking”.
The survey found more than two thirds of respondents wanted to eliminate the wigs in civil cases, although most said criminal court judges should still wear them.
At Thresher & Glenny Tailors, where customers have bought fine wigs since 1755, tailor Mike Morling said a move to doff wigs would be a blow to“a cottage industry”. All are made by hand, although he would not say where.
Wigs range in price from the basic barrister’s model at £350, which perches on the back of the head with a tiny pony tail, to £1,300 for the grand, shoulder-length locks worn on ceremonial occasions.
Morling sells them in four colours, “but they’re all shades of off-white, really”. They have to be professionally cleaned. One customer put his wig in a washing machine and “it came out looking a bit like Jimi Hendrix”.
Like all fine, eccentric British traditions, wigs carry stories. A good wig can last throughout a barrister’s career, and having a ragged, old one conveys authority.
“You don’t want it to look like you have a brand new wig,” said barrister Tom Weisselberg of the firm Blackstone Chambers. “Then you look like a fresh goat ready for slaughter.”