Legal and judicial dress has its origins in royal and ecclesiastical history. Prior to the early modern period, monks and other ecclesiasts were responsible for the administration of justice in the European territories. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this group was replaced by lesser nobility appointed by European sovereigns. As direct servants of the monarch, they were charged with the administration of sovereign law, and it was important for their clothing to reflect the legitimacy and authority of the sovereign's rule. Therefore, early judicial and legal dress borrowed heavily from the styles of the church's legal representatives, while reflecting the new era now defined by royal rule.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, judicial dress varied considerably between nations due to the decentralization of ownership and rule in Europe. Ecclesiastical costume history, however, assured some general similarities in basic judicial and legal dress among European nations. Judges of the early modern period wore sleeved tunics, and over this, wide-sleeved pleated gowns or robes made from cloth, wool, or silk. This garment, previously worn by monks, was sometimes referred to as a supertunica. High judges might wear tabards (essentially, a sleeveless version of the supertunica) instead. Judges also wore closed mantles covering the shoulders to the middle-upper arm, and rolled hoods or casting hoods of the same fabric, lined with miniver. For ceremonial occasions, some judges wore a shorter cloak, called an armelausa (in France, called a manteau), made from the same fabric.
Despite this basic attire, there was little consistency in color of judicial uniform. James Robinson Planché summarizes this point well in his Cyclopædia of Costume: "Information respecting the official costume of the Bench and the Bar is abundant; but, unfortunately, the descriptions are not so clear as they are copious" (Planché, p. 426). Royalty frequently dressed judges in ornate, regal costumes of scarlet and black, although vibrant hues of pink, violet, and royal blue were also common. Color reflected royal taste, but also judicial rank or position, and lower judicial officials wore different colors than presiding judges. Justices of the peace, appointed on a local basis to police the king's laws and manage local affairs, wore lay dress associated with their middle-class rank.
Early Legal Dress
Early costume for lawyers, also known as barristers, solicitors, advocates, or councillors, depending on the country, bore strong similarities to that of judges. During the Middle Ages, lawyers were considered to be apprentices to the judiciary, which explain the likeness in dress. Like their judicial counterparts, barristers in Britain also wore closed gowns made of cloth or silk. These garments, however, had raised, stuffed shoulders and elbow-length glove sleeves. Even before Queen Mary's death, these gowns were predominantly black, in accordance with the rules of the Inns of Court that organized barrister education and membership. Like judges, barristers also wore coifs and skullcaps, as well as white ruff-like bands around the neck. Solicitors, who unlike barristers, did not have the right to present in court, wore long, open black gowns with winged sleeves, although by the seventeenth century, they had lost their special dress and instead wore common business attire. French advocates wore wide, colored, bell-sleeved gowns, often in scarlet, with shoulder pieces and chaperons like their judicial counterparts. They also wore white bands and stiff black toques called bonnets carrés.
Historically, monarchs set out complex dictates on judicial and legal dress, which reflected that individual sovereign's taste. By the seventeenth century, as countries continued to centralize and codify legal order, it became important to systemize the mélange of customs and traditions relating to legal and judicial dress. This did not, however, result in a simple, concise, framework for dress-in fact, the exact opposite! In 1602, France regulated, by royal mandate, the dress of its judges and lawyers of all ranks. Although scarlet still predominated, the monarchy dictated the specific robe fabrics, colors, and lengths for its judges, advocates, and clerks. It even made distinctions for colors by seasons and days of the week.
Britain had similarly intricate legislation, which resulted in complicated and confusing dictates. According to the 1635 Decree by Westminster, the monarch became the exclusive administrator of judicial dress. From spring to mid-autumn, it was mandatory for judges to wear a taffeta-lined black or violet silk robe with deep cuffs lined in silk or fur, a matching hood, and a mantle. Judges were also required to wear coifs, caps, and a cornered cap on top. During the winter months, the taffeta lining was replaced with miniver to keep judges warm. Special scarlet dress replaced this standard costume on holy days or the visit of the Lord Mayor.
There was no parallel code for barristers' dress at this time, and the Inns of Court governed bar costume.
During the same time, Britain also regulated the judicial dress of the American colonies. Settlers followed codes and ceremonies of British law, and while little has been written on judicial and legal dress in the colonies, scarlet, which was the ceremonial and traditional color for British judges, was de rigueur for the colonial bench. American dress, however, did not mirror the same level of British complexity, given the puritan and austere circumstances and culture of the region.