Of Powdered Wigs and Black Coats

Last week, spring showed some sign of actually being here – lovely flowers, green leaves, bright sunshine and chirping birds. I was really enjoying the wonderful weather – having the temperature in the mid-’80s was nice. But in India, it’s much hotter – about 100 degrees right now.

As an attorney there, I didn’t get to wear light clothing. I wore a black jacket with a black waistcoat and a black gown over it. With air-conditioning a luxury in India, readers will sympathize with my brethren who bear the burden of the tradition.

When the British came to India, they brought not only their legal system, but their lawyer’s attire. And when they left, they left that legal system, along with black coats, bands and gowns. The same was the tradition in the United States. India persists in the tradition, whereas, the U.S. got rid of it a long time ago.

The new U.S. Supreme Court got off to a less than auspicious start on Feb. 1, 1790. The scene was at the Royal Exchange in New York, which lacked a key symbol of judicial authority – a bench. Three of the six justices were missing and there were no cases to try. The court adjourned to dine with President Washington. The next day, Justice Cushing from Massachusetts was jeered by a mob of youngsters when he tried to walk down Broadway in his legal wig.

Barristers only started wearing wigs in the beginning of the 18th century. According to Lord Denning, the celebrated English judge, “it conceals the personality and the bald head…. It is a mark of authority and source of respect.” But in the United States, the Court decided to take Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “For heaven’s sake, discard the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.”

Besides tradition, there have been attorneys and judges who loved to dress – powdered wig, black coats, ruffled shirts, knee-breeches and similar things. Some trial lawyers considered their costume an integral part of their courtroom performance. William Howe, the senior partner of the famed and feared New York firm of Howe and Hummel more than a hundred years ago, wore clothes that matched Broadway personalities of the era, such as “Diamond Jim” Brady. In his New Yorker profile, Richard H. Rovere paints this portrait: “Old Bill” Howe was a stocky man weighing nearly three hundred pounds, with closely cropped white hair and moustache – pompous, gruff and with immense self-assurance. But apart from his versatility in the tricks of the legal trade, his face was not so much his fortune as his costume. He wore it, I suppose, in part to advertise himself and in part because it was his idea of elegance. Did not Mark Twain habitually wear a white Panama suit even in London?”

Howe always wore a blue yachting cap, sometimes a navigator’s blue coat and white trousers, but more often a loudly checked brown suit, with low-cut vest, displaying the starched bosom of a bright pink shirt, and a pink collar innocent of tie, in place of which he sported a gigantic diamond stud, with others of equal size adorning his chest. Sometimes he switched to pearls in the afternoon. Diamonds glittered on his fingers. On his feet were either yachting shoes or dinky patent leathers with cloth uppers; in his lapel a rose or carnation; in his breast pocket, a huge silk handkerchief into which he shed, with great effect, showers of crocodile tears while defending his clients.

There also have been lawyers and judges who did not care about their appearance. The best example may be John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the United States. As a lawyer, it was common to see Marshall strolling through the streets of Richmond, Virginia, dressed in a plain linen suit holding a straw hat under his arm filled with cherries. Even as the Chief Justice, he presented the appearance of a plain countryman. He had a farm in Fauquier County, Virginia and another near Richmond, and he would often return from the latter to take his seat on the bench with burrs sticking to his clothes.

Thinking back to the weather in India, I am forced to ponder the original thought with which I started – “To robe or not to robe?” Robes certainly do not add to legal prudence and intellect, however, they are great levelers so far as the Bar is considered. They distinguish an attorney from a litigant and imbue a seriousness of purpose and sense of decorum that is conducive to the dispensation of justice. But, there will surely be no serious impediment to the administration of justice without a black coat and gown.

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