Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

The Robes and Wigs of History’s Courtroom


As we reflect on the past with this month’s nostalgia issue, I cannot help but admire certain traditions of the past. For example, the old robes and wigs once donned by both judges and lawyers in colonial and early American history were especially awesome. Okay, maybe the wigs went too far (even looking at them makes me itchy), but there is something to be said for sartorial formality in the courts.

Illustration(1)In reflecting on the yesteryear of our profession, my own personal experience with the old days is noticeably lacking. After all, I started my career only six short yesteryears ago. I mean, 2008 was not so different from today, right? Nevertheless, one thing I’ve always admired about legal history is the formal dress code of traditional court business. That’s why for lawyers in America, I want to bring back the robes and ditch the boring Western business suit. What are we? Stockbrokers? We need robes.

Lawyers might be the only profession without a really cool uniform. Doctors basically wear pajamas to work , like “hey, I’m saving lives, I don’t have time to get dressed.” Chefs get to wear interesting white smocks and aprons, with ink pens sheathed on the shoulder. Do chefs need pens? Even the clergy still get decked out every Sabbath with their own unique and solemn cassocks. And don’t even mention karate instructors to me.

But, unfairly, lawyers are still stuck with the boring old Western business suit and tie.

Lawyers should reclaim and reestablish our historical, more formal garb of robes and gowns. Let’s face it, those robes look pretty cool. And the better you look, the better you will feel in court. Plus, think of all the money you will save on dry cleaning dress shirts.

Even to this day, the U.S. Solicitor General and government lawyers before the Supreme Court wear “morning clothes” consisting of a frock coat with tails, striped pants, and a vest. In 2014, that is some serious adherence to tradition, but it’s still lame compared to the robe John Adams wore when he defended the colonial British troops accused of the murder of Crispus Attucks.

While most of America moves toward less formality in their attire at work, and even in church, lawyers have a decision to make. Of course, we could follow the mainstream progression toward informality in dress as we work and worship, but that’s no fun. Instead, we should go the other way and stand out. Let’s have a cool uniform again, just like doctors. Bring back the barrister’s robes.


K-Lewis-headshot(2)By Keith Lewis, an attorney at Borenstein & Associates who hates ironing dress shirts.

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