What is a Court Dress?

Erica Stratton

Court dress is a style of clothing worn by those in the legal profession when they are working in their official capacity. Though the exact style varies between countries and levels of the judicial system, long robes are a common basis of court dress. The style and color of the robes, as well as various accessories such as wigs or medallions, have all gone in and out of fashion throughout history.

Long robes are a common basis of court dress.
Long robes are a common basis of court dress.

Today, many judicial robes are either red or black, no matter their country of origin. Stories vary as to why these two colors were adopted. Black robes are said to have come into use in 1970s England during the mourning period for Queen Mary. Red is a color long associated with people of power in many countries around the world. In South Asia, many chief justice's robes are embroidered with gold to show prestige. In some branches of the English judicial system, pink and purple robes are worn.

Arguably, many judicial styles worldwide were influenced by the Judges' Decree of 1780 in England and Wales. Before that time, judicial dress was little regulated, and judges' robes could be black, red, or green. Horsehair wigs were optional. After the decree, it was required that all judges serving in England and Wales wear full black robes and wigs during courtroom proceedings.

Many countries occupied by the British ended up adopting this style of court dress. In former British colonies, such as Hong Kong, judges still wear the full robes and wig. Though court dress styles typically change slowly out of respect for tradition, some alterations have been made due to political pressure when such countries became independent. Other times, changes are made due to practicality; many African court dresses are lightweight simply because the full outfit would be too hot for most people to wear in that climate.

There are also a few instances of a judiciary altering his robes to suit himself. US Federal Chief Justice William Rehnquist added yellow bars to the sleeves of his robe after being impressed with the style in a play he'd seen the night before. Since his successor wore plain black robes, this practice has not become traditional. In 2008, Britain's Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, created a simpler style of court dress that eschewed the elaborate wig, bands, and collar.

One or two countries have eliminated the tradition of wearing elaborate judicial robes altogether. In Greece and Scandinavia, for example, a suit is fine to wear during any legal proceeding.

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Discussion Comments


@kentuckycat - That is an interesting point to bring up, but I wonder if it is something that historians throughout history would feel like it was important to note.

To me the color of the dress of the judges in a court room is a rather minor detail that someone would not put a whole lot of emphasis into recording simply because it is a minor detail of little importance.

I feel like popular culture has dictated what we as Americans and English people think of what a judge looks like.

I guarantee that this may be the case as I cannot think of a single television show or movie from any era that depicts a judge wearing a different colored robe besides black and it is something that is probably conditioned in our minds.


This article says that in England there was little regulation of the color of the judicial dress, but I have heard very little mention of judges in 17th and 18th century England wearing robes that were a different color than black.

I know that it was probably not set and regulated, but I am sure that out of tradition they used black robes, simply because it was an easy color to acquire and was well recognizable.

I would just think that one would hear a lot about this at the time if it was traditional for the judges to wear something other than black.

The only instances I have heard of judges during this time wearing a color other than black involved the judge being difficult or somewhat of a quirky person and he wore that color simply to be unique.


@titans62 - You are absolutely correct. The traditional American court dress is modeled after the British court dress, which consists of a black robe and a large and elaborate white wig.

Although the wig was adopted early on in American history, it was eventually discarded as part of the tradition, but the long black robes were kept and become a staple of courts across America.

This explains why America and the United Kingdom have similar types of dress, because the cultures roots are similar, but across the world there are many different types of court dress that are considered appropriate and they make someone in the English or American culture to look at that type of dress and see it as odd.

Cultural differences can seem strange and it is not unusual for someone to assume that something like the dress of the court is a legal tradition everywhere, but in reality it is relative to where one is at.


This is quite interesting and I have always assumed that at least in most places in the world that the court dress for judges was a thick black robe.

I guess there would have to be several different intangibles to factor in, such as the weather, that would go into decided what the traditional court dress is.

I guess also thinking about it, it should not surprise me that the traditional court dress of a particular country would depend and coincide with the culture of that area.

I guess I am just used to seeing the American and British version of judges and do not stop and think that there is a possibility that all judges do not look like that across the world and that the dress is relative and not exactly a legal tradition.

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