British Law: The tradition of wigs

    Judges Procession service at Westminster Abbey in London. Credit: David Levenson / Alamy
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    Alice Rush explores the history of Ede and Ravenscroft, which makes wigs for judges and barristers, as well as ceremonial gowns

    For Heaven’s sake discard the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” US president Thomas Jefferson was no fan of legal wigs, but in Britain, despite reductions in use over the years, the custom of wig-wearing has endured in criminal courts and for ceremonial purposes.

    Origins

    Wig-wearing began in courtrooms during the reign of King Charles II when everyone was donning wigs outside, too. The fashion arrived from France. In his diary, in 1663, Samuel Pepys records its beginnings: “At Mr Jervas’s, my old barber, I did try two or three borders and periwigs, meaning to wear one; and yet I have no stomach for it, but that the pains of keeping my hair clean is so great.” In an era before hot running water, a solution to the problem of parasites – namely keeping one’s hair very short under a wig – was an appealing one.

    However, wigs presented their own challenges. In the late 17th and early 18th century, legal wigs were made from black horsehair, which needed perfumes and powders – damaging to clothes. To this day, the “dress bag” or “rosette” that hangs from the back, invented to protect expensive robes from dripping oils and powder, is part of the judges’ and Queen’s Counsel ceremonial dress.

    Fashions

    By the reign of King George III (1760-1820) wigs were going out of fashion, although the custom endured among coachmen, members of the legal profession and bishops (though the latter were allowed to stop wearing them in the 1830s). Around the same time, however, a man called Humphrey Ravenscroft hit upon a solution to the problem of black horsehair, perfecting a wig made of white horsehair that wouldn’t need powdering or curling.

    Spirit of tradition

    A member of the famous wig-making family, Humphrey was the grandson of the founder, Thomas Ravenscroft, who created the business in Lincoln’s Inn, the heart of legal London, in 1726. Patented in 1822, Humphrey’s design remains the model for barristers’ wigs, and even now barristers and QCs are invited to sign a book at the company’s flagship store on Chancery Lane when they are measured for their first wigs.

    Around ten years later, Humphrey developed a similarly low-maintenance version of judges’ full-bottomed wigs. The origins of Ede and Ravenscroft stretch back to 1689. In addition to making handmade wigs, the company dresses the judiciary and creates ceremonial robes and academic gowns for graduation ceremonies.

    Royal connections

    Two important turning points in its 320-year history were marked by powerful marital unions. One occurred in 1871 when Joseph Webb Ede, robemaker to Queen Victoria, married wig-maker Rosanna Ravenscroft – creating a marriage of the two businesses – and died shortly afterwards, leaving her at the helm.

    But the company’s first big break was when King William III and Queen Mary II, Britain’s only co-reigning monarchs, came to the throne in 1689. That same year, the business that was to become Ede and Ravenscroft won the commission to provide the robes for the coronation and has done so for no fewer than 12 coronations since, holding three royal warrants today.

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