Traditional legal garb has been an iconic part of the law for centuries. It may seem these days that Judges and barristers look ridiculously outdated in their long gowns and curled wigs. This began long ago, due to nits.
In the 1700s it was a time of great change in Britain. The population was booming, agriculture methods were adapting to keep up with demand, and the cities became busier and fuller. Much of the country’s canal network was created at this time and still exists to the present day. This increased trade only crowded the cities even further, adding to the melting pot of dirt, disease and parasites. Modern ideas of hygiene were not conceptualised until Joseph Lister’s link between dirt and disease almost a century later so the masses were louse-ridden and did not care.
Of course, at this time they did not even have an effective cure for head-lice. Natural repellents were used – we still encourage washing hair in rosemary, lavender or thyme. But as a last resort, all you could do to make sure you had no more nits was to make sure you had no more hair and shave it all off.
So here we are, in this busy and messy time, looking at courtrooms bustling with filthy spectators and even filthier criminals. Imagine, then, the well-educated and well-off Judges and barristers representing in these courtrooms. Not only do they want to separate themselves aesthetically from the scummy rabbles, but they want some manner of physical protection from picking up dirt or disease. They wore long robes of shiny fabric that would not harbor parasites and would dispel sticky grime. The wigs were chosen in order to protect their own hair from lice – or, in fact, to hide the fact that they had shaved to alleviate an existing louse problem.
Whether or not traditional Court wigs should be scrapped is debated on a regular basis. It seems that the wearers enjoy having this oddly specific work uniform, although one would hope this opinion is not still due to a nit problem.