updated on 19 October 2023
Barrister wigs have been a long-standing tradition since the 17th Century, but is the dress code outdated and alienating aspiring barristers from pursuing careers at the Bar?
Reading time: seven minutes
If you want to pursue a career in law, you’ll likely worry about achieving excellent grades, securing work experience and ensuring your CV is strong enough. What you shouldn’t have to consider is whether you’ll be held in contempt in court for how you wear your hair. Unfortunately, this is what Michael Etienne, a Black barrister at Garden Court Chambers, was threatened with when he asked the Bar about the consequences of refusing to wear his barrister wig due to his natural afro hair.
The reality is that being a barrister typically means that you’ll be required to wear the standard dress of a wig and gown. However, this isn’t always the case and it certainly shouldn’t lead to discrimination. In recent years, calls to reform the dress code have increased, with several alternatives being created by barristers who feel the traditional dress fails to encompass their beliefs and values.
To understand why barristers are asked to wear a wig and gown, it’s first important to understand the history of this uniform. Barristers in the UK are known for their distinctive court dress which encompasses a black robe with a white collar and wig. Wigs first appeared in the courtroom in the 17th Century simply because under the reign of King Charles II, wigs were a crucial part of polite society. In particular, the adoption of wigs by barristers was motivated by their desire to distinguish themselves from solicitors and to create a level of formality and respect within the courtroom.
Barrister dress symbolises a separation between those who uphold the law and those stood before it. There’s also an argument that in wearing a wig, barristers are afforded a level of anonymity and camaraderie with other barristers, therefore presenting themselves as part of an establishment rather than individuals.
Women weren’t called to the Bar until 1922, read all about their journey in our ‘Belonging at the Bar: women’s journey from barriers to barristers’ Feature.
Today, not all barristers are required to wear wigs. Since 2007, wigs haven’t been required during family or civil court hearings, or when appearing in front of the Supreme Court. Wigs do, however, remain commonplace during criminal proceedings, with a number of barristers electing to wear them throughout civil hearings too.
While the sentiment behind a uniformed dress code is an admirable one, in recent years the strict requirements for barristers have been criticised for being:
Leslie Thomas KC is one barrister who feels as though the wigs have no place in a “modern legal profession” adding that it represents a “ridiculous anachronism”. Leslie points out that pupil barristers may have to pay as much as £700 for their first wig which isolates less well-off pupils who wish to enter the profession. Not only are wigs expensive but they’re impractical for certain cultures or religions, nor are they suitable for vegans owing to them being created from horsehair.
While Leslie’s comments draw attention to a range of issues surrounding barrister wigs, his criticisms were spurred by the warning placed against Michael, shining a spotlight on hair discrimination at the Bar. It's crucial to note here, that race-based hair discrimination has been illegal in the UK since the Equality Act became law in 2010. Despite this, as the case of Michael Etienne shows, such discrimination still takes place.
This isn’t to say that all Black barristers, or aspiring barristers feel that wigs are outdated. Speaking to The Times, barrister Nneka Akudolu states that she loves wearing her wig: “[A]s a Black woman at the Bar, it’s part of a uniform I wear with pride.” Nneka adds: “I passionately want to retain the tradition of wearing a wig and gown.” However, this doesn’t mean Nneka doesn’t recognise the concerns expressed by those who are less thrilled about the requirement, suggesting that “we should engage in dialogue about dispensations for those with particular hairstyles, as already exist for religious reasons”.
“The focus ought to be on the job, not forcing people into submission”
LawCareers.Net spoke to Rachel Bale, a mixed raced barrister with Afro-Caribbean hair and co-founder of HerBar, to ask about their feelings towards barrister wigs. Rachel, like Nneka, says that she personally really enjoys wearing the wig but adds that “courts ought to be open to adjustments and allow dispensing of wigs”, and that “the focus ought to be on the job, not forcing people into submission”.
Katharine Newton, an employment specialist at Old Square Chambers, highlights her concern for the future of the Bar when speaking to Legal Futures about the fact that a number of junior Black barristers and students had expressed concern about attending pupillage interviews with their natural hair. “We need to stop and think how ridiculous and awful it is that we should have to think about whether something that grows naturally out of their head should be changed,” Newton says.
Still not sure whether the Bar is right for you? This Oracle offers more advice.
We spoke to Emilene Davis, who at the time of interview was a pupil barrister specialising in crime, Emilene is looking forward to wearing her wig although she recognises that others may not feel the same as her. As a mixed-raced barrister with loose curls, she tells LawCareers.Net that perhaps the Bar could “find another way to maintain the symbolic meaning of the wig” should barristers not wish to wear one. Emilene argues that the Bar has a duty to attract diverse talent and therefore feels that “if a person doesn’t wish to wear a wig for cultural reasons, such as wearing their natural hair, then they shouldn’t be required to wear one. I think it’s more important to have an inclusive, diverse and accepting Bar”.
“Alienating those who aren’t from a ‘traditional’ background by enforcing the convention of wearing wigs is disproportionate to the benefit it achieves”
Emilene acknowledges that while there’s an argument for the anonymity some feel the wigs provide, “alienating those who aren’t from a ‘traditional’ background by enforcing the convention of wearing wigs is disproportionate to the benefit it achieves”.
For key information on life as a Barrister, check out our Barristers hub.
Like many industries, the legal profession is striving to become a more diverse and inclusive place. This transformation often feels unnecessarily long-winded and difficult but it’s those who continue to speak about these topics, raise awareness and strive to be unapologetically themselves that continuously raise the bar.
For founder of HerBar Rachel, the conversation of hair extends far beyond barrister wigs. “This all comes down to a sense of confidence in ourselves as Black people, which goes far deeper than the Bar. I’m personally so warmed by the fact Black people are choosing to remove weaves/wigs and wear their hair natural in all different forms of twists, curls and coils and encourage this practice.”
Rachel continues: “For too long, there’s been an internal (and external) pressure to have 'professional' hair, meaning European straight styles, but this completely overlooks the beauty of variety and strength in being our own authentic selves.”
It’s crucial here to acknowledge that a confidence and love of yourself, culture and beliefs, although essential for your wellbeing, should never have to be a tool to mitigate against discrimination.
For those who reject wearing the classic barrister wig on the grounds of religious or moral beliefs, alternatives exist, such as vegan-friendly wigs designed by Samuel March, a junior barrister at 9 King’s Bench Walk. Alternatively, for Muslim women, Karlia Lykourgou and Maryam Mir, barristers at Doughty Street Chambers, have created court-friendly hijabs. Speaking to Legal Cheek Maryam says: “[I]t’s time for the professional world to celebrate all people in all facets of their identity.”
She adds: “You don’t have to compromise who you are to succeed. Don’t let anyone dictate what you should look or sound like. Be true to yourself and confident in your identity and success will come to you.”
There are numerous systems, laws and codes in place to stamp out racist and discriminatory practices, the Halo Code being an essential part of this. The Halo Code aims to protect "employees who come to work with natural hair and protective hairstyles associated with their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities". The code was founded by young Black organisers from The Advocacy Academy and is signed by a number of law firms, including Clifford Chance, Eversheds Sutherland and Linklaters LLP.
Barbara Mills, a family lawyer at 4PB, also asks that young Black barristers seek her help if necessary, stating that support is “only an email away”. Mills wants aspiring and current barristers to understand that “you’re not alone”. Employment specialist Katherine also recommends that any young barristers experiencing unequal treatment should contact the equality and diversity hotline which is operated by the Bar Council.
To close, here are some words of support and wisdom for aspiring Black barristers from Rachel at HerBar: “My advice, wear your hair proudly, everywhere.”
For greater insights into the experiences of Black people in the legal profession, read: ‘Black candidates share legal recruitment experiences’.
Niamh Gray (they/them) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.