Top British legal officer flips his wig Tradition: The Lord Chancellor thinks it's time for a change in courtroom fashions. He wants to skip the tights and save the big hair for formal occasions.

November 08, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Enough already with the tights and the wig.

That was the message delivered yesterday by the Lord Chancellor, who is desperate to ditch his 17th-century costume for a modern judicial gown.

In an interview with the Times of London, Lord Irvine of Lairg bemoaned dressing in a full-bottomed wig, breeches, tights, embroidered gown and buckled shoes.

The Speaker of the House of Lords and top legal officer of England and Wales accepts the need for such pomp during formal occasions, but he loathes the "ludicrous silk tights which I have to wear every day, despite having got the business of pulling them on down to a fine art."

He said that the wigs worn by British judges and lawyers create an image that is "old-fashioned, out of touch and self-satisfied."

Lord Irvine, a top adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, added that the wigs made the public think of lawyers as an "antique lot."

Lord Irvine apparently views a change in costume as part of his bTC overall program to modernize the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain's Houses of Parliament.

He seems to want to bring a bit of modern dress sense into the courts as well. But it wouldn't be a British courtroom without a wig-wearing lawyer.

Despite Lord Irvine's comments, it's unlikely that Britain's top 9,300 lawyers, known as barristers, will be giving up their wigs so quickly.

A push to remove the wigs comes along every few years. The lawyers and general public are usually polled, with overwhelming numbers supporting the old traditions. "I think they'll stay, frankly, certainly for criminal cases," says Michael Yelton, who is based in Cambridge and has practiced law for 25 years.

"A lot of people believe that it would be sensible to keep wigs for criminal cases," he says. "It adds to the dignity."

The lawyers apparently like the anonymity the wigs give them. Many top attorneys are unrecognizable on the street. The wigs also serve as a uniform of sorts, setting the lawyers apart from the public.

And what is bad about the wigs?

"They make your hair greasy," Yelton says. "And you see an awful lot of bald lawyers. In the summer, it can also get hot and itchy."

The artisans at Ede and Ravens-croft of Chancery Lane in London are also hoping the lawyers keep their wigs on. The firm has supplied England's finest wigs since 1689. It still churns out several hundred handmade horsehair wigs each year, ranging from $660 for a short barrister's wig to $2,640 for the full-bottomed model worn by the Lord Chancellor.

They'll even rent the wigs by the day, a practice that began recently after wigs began disappearing at a top London court.

"Back in the 17th century, everyone used to wear wigs," says Gill Godfrey, the firm's marketing manager. "At some point, most men stopped wearing the wigs. But the barristers kept them."

Godfrey says the modern judicial wig was created in 1822 by Humphrey Ravens-croft. "Before 1822, the wigs had to be curled and powdered," Godfrey says. "They had to have special attention, like hair.

"Now, wigs just come out of the case, and they're ready to wear," she adds. "They're permanently curled. They don't need any attention."

The wigs are so popular, Godfrey says, even American lawyers buy them for souvenirs. And British lawyers cling to their wigs. A spanking new white wig is usually a sign of a new lawyer.

"One wig should last a lifetime," Godfrey says. "Even two lifetimes."

Pub Date: 11/08/97

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