Why Do Judges Wear Robes?

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In spite of all the changes brought about by technology, some things remain the same. One of those traditions that continue to the present day is the attire of judges in court rooms. A visit to the court transports us to an era gone by and we encounter judges who wear long flowing robes and look like they have stepped out of an Edwardian Novel. That might well be the case, as this tradition of judges wearing robes started off during the reign of Edward II during the mid14th century.

How did this tradition start?

Around seven hundred years ago, robes were worn not only by judges, but by courtiers and other gentlemen. It was considered suitable to wear robes to formal occasions like a visit to the royal court and the work place. So a person in a robe was not looked on as an anomaly and could fit in wherever he went.

Robes were of different types and one could make out the standing or profession of the wearer by the robe he wore. Judges could wear one of three colored robes depending on the season or occasion:

  • In the summer, a violet robe
  • In the winter, a green robe
  • And for special occasions, a scarlet robe

After some time, judges were given the option to wear black robes during winter and colored robes during summer.

Black is the new Scarlet

Though the reasons for changing from the bright colors to black is not clear, history has it that the colorful, and at times, gaudy robes of the judges took a turn towards sobriety when King Charles II passed away. As a mark of mourning, everyone in the court, including judges, wore black. The mourning period got extended and at the end of it, the judges had gotten used to wearing black robes to court. Whether the mourning was for King Charles II or for Queen Mary is a matter of conjecture, but the fact remains that the vivid colored robes were forever exchanged for black.

Spreading the tradition through colonization

With the spread of British rule to most parts of the world, their customs and traditions spread too. The monarchy held sway over many continents and countries and brought in its wake education, legislature and judiciary on the lines of the ones in England.

The tradition of judges wearing robes to the court house was one such borrowed norm from England and was spread to all the commonwealth countries and colonies. When countries freed themselves of the British yoke, they somehow retained many of the customs and traditions brought by them. To this day we see in many countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and India as in the UK, judges wearing robes.

Why do judges still wear robes?

There has been great debate, especially in the US, on why judges should still follow an outdated tradition of wearing robes to work. It is said that after America gained independence from British rule, Thomas Jefferson wanted to discard the archaic dress code for the judges, saying that with freedom from the British, they should be rid of their customs too. However, he was refuted by John Adams who was all for continuing the tradition. Obviously Adams won the debate and American judges to this day continue wearing black robes to court.

Judges feel that the robe symbolizes responsibility and that it unites judges the world over in upholding the constitution of the land they belong to, whichever country that might be. It is a mark of authority that gives them a distinctive appearance befitting the special powers vested in them. No matter what the judge wears beneath the robe, he looks as equally distinguished as the next judge.

Though there has been a lot of relaxation in the severity of trimmings on the robes of the judges and near total discarding of the cumbersome wigs accompanying the robes, the current attire of the judges seems to be here to stay.


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