Last updated on September 20th, 2023 at 09:05 am
The origin of wearing a wig during court sessions has an unlikely history. Syphilis.
As the story goes, during the reign of King Louis XIV, he adopted a wig because he believed his bald scalp would lead to the conclusion that he had the sexually transmitted disease.
And as the king did, so did his subjects. The wig came to represent a sort of nobility—an aristocratic symbol of honor. Soon, King George II of England wore the now-famous wig to hide his balding scalp, and the trend caught on in England.
The barristers of the time who, amusingly, had to don a clean cut and a beard before (which would be a more modern look today), chose to adopt the wig. It was made out of horsehair which was very expensive and could only be afforded by the elite class (hence the term ‘bigwig’).
The middle class had to settle for wigs made from goat hair. The function of the white wigs was to create an air of grace around the legal profession. They were intended to create anonymity, as it was hoped that the common folk would not recognize the judges when they were out and about outside the courtroom.
Additionally, the wigs were worn to show that the judge was ready to hear the case in an unbiased manner. Ugandan judges wear red robes, white bows, and the famous white wig. This attire is rather peculiar and, some would say problematic, for a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the cost of the garments. The Washington Post has reported that the ceremonial wig is imported from Britain and costs around $6,500. This cost was once the subject of heated debate in Parliament.
The wig has also come under huge scrutiny because of the fact that it was not meant for Africans in the first place.
The white horsehair was supposed to blend with the hair of white judges. Natural African hair has a texture that is a far cry from the aforementioned white European hair.
Furthermore, there is the colonialism issue. Why do we follow a tradition steeped in colonial history? A time when the courts were largely inaccessible to the ordinary folk.
Canada is one of the countries that recognized this, and ditched the white wig in order to get “psychological separation from Britain and reinforce their independence.”
To add comic relief to this state of things, even Britain has ditched the wig! This begs the question; should the Ugandan judiciary step away from this tradition as well? This question could be answered with a few more questions.
How far down the line is the point of no return? And have we reached there? Have we acquiesced to a tradition we should have done away with years ago to the point that it is not colonial but woven into our culture? These questions, like that of the origin of the wig, have an unlikely answer; Kenya.
Kenya’s former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga tried changing the justices’ robes to green and yellow, in order to break away from their colonial past. That didn’t go so well and he faced scrutiny over how the judges’ new attire looked and whether there was a need to break from decorum.
When his successor, Chief Justice David Maraga was appointed, the dress was quickly changed back to the old red robes.
However, Kenya dropped the requirement that judges should wear wigs in 2011.
Lawyers, on the other hand, wear black robes, and while black isn’t a particularly an interesting color (it is used for funerals), it is meant to show that they will have dignity for the law.
The fact that they are identical to other lawyers’ black robes is reflective of the fact that all lawyers are equally bound to protect the law. The color black, as was mentioned, is not a particularly interesting color. It is a funeral color. And we owe it to a funeral to the attire advocates don today.
Following the death of King Charles II, black robes were adopted as a form of mourning and they have become a mainstay to this day. All in all, the tradition comes from the most unlikely of places. Whether we stick to that tradition is the question that needs to be answered. And Only time will tell.