Ever wondered why Nigerian lawyers wear those black robes/gowns and white wigs when they appear in court? Well wonder no more, this blog is going to explain the history behind the practice.
So this is how it started – after the British colonized Nigeria, we adopted the same legal system and by extension all the paraphernalia that came with it. One of which was the costume of the British barrister.
The culture of lawyers wearing wigs in court actually has its roots in, believe it or not, fashion! Charles II returned to England from France and brought with him the trend of the ‘periwig‘ from Louis XIV’s court. English society adopted the trend, as did barristers, it became the ‘in-thing’ for people, especially wealthy people, to wear wigs. The practice of wearing wigs fell into 2 camps:
- Those who wore wigs in order to hide the fact that they were getting bald
- Those who wore wigs because they had shaved their hair in order to prevent infestations (lice infestations was a big worry back then).
So, it was fashionable to see everyday people (obviously only the wealthy people could afford it) wearing wigs. That is how the wearing of wigs got into the courts. However, over the years, the wearing of wigs began to get less and less fashionable and eventually people stopped wearing them, however by this time, lawyers and judges felt it sufficiently differentiated them from others and so they kept on the practice…and now more than 300 years down the line, that is why you would go to any of our many courts round the country and find a room full of Nigerian men and women all wearing wigs.
The Black Robe or Gown
Like the wearing of wigs, the culture of gowns was borrowed from the prevailing practice of the time, however, in the case of gowns, it had a little twist.
People wore gowns back in the 17th century, it was part of the attire, however they wore very colourful gowns. The black gown was worn as a mourning gown after the death of Charles II in 1685. After the mourning period, the lawyers decided to keep wearing it, as it begun to symbolise the sombre nature of the profession and neutrality.
The black robe worn by lawyers also has a weird piece of triangular cloth attached to the left shoulder, often described as ‘violin-shaped’, which is cut in two lengthways. The origin of this is a bit more uncertain; there are two theories on it:
- That, this was once a money sack for payment of lawyer brief fees. According to some, it is divided in half to create two segments, one for gold coins, and the other for silver. The idea being that since lawyers were initially not openly paid for their work, clients placed ex-gratia payment into the pocket, literally behind their back, to preserve their dignity. Therefore, because they could not see how much they were being paid, the quality of their advocacy in court could not be compromised. (we like this theory, but it’s an unlikely one)
- The second theory is that the triangular cloth is a derivative of the mourning hood introduced following the death of Charles II, in keeping with traditional mourning dress of the time.
And there you have it, the above is why Nigerian Lawyers in one of the warmest climates in the world, wear wigs and black robes/gowns. You can read more about the history of the court dress in this research carried out by Ede & Ravenscroft who are the most famous and successful traders in court and ceremonial dresses.
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