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What Is a Barrister Wig?

By B. Koch
Updated May 21, 2024
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The barrister wig is a type of white, horsehair wig that is worn by judges and lawyers in a number of countries, most famously, England. The practice became popular in the 1600s, and continues in the early years of the 21st century. Different court officials wear different types of wigs, and due to the price of these wigs, an individual may only own one over the course of his or her career.

The practice of wearing a barrister wig began in the 1600s under the reign of Charles II. The style originated in France and spread to England. At the time, wearing wigs was not a practice reserved for judges or lawyers but was fashionable for all members of high society. When wig wearing went out of style, the judicial system chose to continue to wear them.

Usually, a barrister wig is made of white horsehair. These wigs include elaborate curls and styling sewn into the wig. Also, some styles of wig include hanging strands of hair that are elegantly tied. Many think of these wigs as being powdered, although today's versions do not need to be powdered.

These wigs come in a number of different styles and are worn by different types of judicial officials. A tie-wig covers only the top of the head and is most often worn by barristers, also known as lawyers. Judges may wear bob-wigs, which are large and frizzy, or spaniel wigs, which are long and hang over the shoulders. Members of the House of Lords as well as barristers, especially very senior barristers, are also known to wear spaniel wigs.

This type of headgear can be expensive, and judges are given a stipend to help them pay for their wigs, while barristers must pay for these wigs themselves. As a result, a barrister wig is often sold used after a court official has left his or her job. While this is one way that wigs may be procured inexpensively, it can also result in the wig becoming more expensive. If a wig has been worn by an especially famous judge, it may sell for much more than a new wig. With such daunting prices, a lawyer will often own just one wig throughout his whole career.

The tradition of wearing barrister wigs by court judges in England has been debated over the years, but it was decided that keeping the wig was the best decision. It is said that the barrister wig lends an air of dignity and credibility to the job of court judge and that it helps to disguise judges who may be targeted by criminals unhappy with their rulings.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Jun 20, 2014

@Pippinwhite -- Since you like UK shows, remember "Rumpole of the Bailey?" Leo McKern was in the title role. I remember it was a running joke about how threadbare his wig was, and that it had the cork showing through because it was so old and worn. If I remember correctly, he bought it secondhand and never replaced it.

Rumpole is one of the great characters of British television. He's like their Perry Mason, only much funnier and much wiser. It was always one of my favorites and I looked forward to it appearing on public television.

By Pippinwhite — On Jun 19, 2014

I don't know that a wig would be particularly effective to help disguise judges, but they certainly do seem to lend an air of dignity to the proceedings. I love to watch crime dramas from the UK that make it across the pond, and it's always interesting to see what the barristers' wigs look like. Some of the actors look much better in them than others do.

I didn't know the long wigs were called "spaniel wigs," although that does make some kind of sense when you look at them. Dignified, yes. Attractive? Not so much.

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