Many judges often wear robes in the courtroom, but sometimes, they also wear it outside of the courtroom. Where did the robes originate, and why do judges (and lawyers) wear them?

For example, the first image shows justices of the Canadian Supreme Court, the second shows justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the third shows a british judge.

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1 Answer 1


The black judicial robes date back in time hundreds, if not thousands of years. In medieval times, all educated people in the British isles, not just judges wore robes and these were customs descended from the Gaelic people who originally ruled Britain and Ireland. This custom differed from that of the Romans who wore togas.

The Gaelic elite wore robes with color signifying rank, black being the lowest rank, that of a docent, the lowest level of a professor. Later, when the Saxons invaded they eventually adopted some of the customs of the Gaels. The culmination of this was the founding of what is now known as Oxford University by King Alfred, the greatest of the Saxon kings. This tradition was preserved and developed at Oxford which affected the dress of all academics, including lawyers and justices.

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Thomas More in his regalia typical of an Oxford Don, c. 1500

These patterns of dress also were influenced somewhat by Italian clerical styles. The main difference between the Italian styles and the Gaelic styles is that Italian robes are usually coats, opening in the front. The Gaelic robe either has no opening at all, just a hole the head is put through, or is divided at the back.


The custom of wearing wigs or perukes was a late development which originated in France in the 1700s and has no great antiquity at all.

  • 3
    This answer seems to miss out on the connection between judges' attireand the fact that in the UK they represent the crown. In other words, there is probably not only an academic component to the answer but also one having to do with nobility, the royal court, and associated standards of dress. In particular, the red fur-trimmed robes shown in Canadian and English use strike me as more courtly than clerical.
    – phoog
    Jul 25, 2016 at 4:00
  • @phoog That is not right. The judiciary in England was associated with the clergy, not the nobility. Also, the clergy in England dates back to pre-Norman times and even pre-Roman times, but the nobility in England was standardized around Norman invaders, a completely different set of people with a different set of customs and dress. The nobles in England never wore robes. They wore breeches and waistcoats. It was the CLERGY that wore robes.
    – Cicero
    Apr 3, 2017 at 19:36
  • Are robes such as those worn in the House of Lords also clerical in origin?
    – phoog
    Apr 3, 2017 at 19:54
  • @phoog Yes, the robes of the peers and the coronation robe of the king in England, France and the Holy Roman Empire are actually not robes but vestments symbolizing the devotion of the knights to Christ and the Church of Rome. In fact, during the Civil War in England, Cromwell and the Puritans specifically wanted to forbid forever the parliamentary vestments because they were the trappings of "papistry" and "idolatry", but after the Restoration of King Charles, the vestments were brought back.
    – Cicero
    Apr 3, 2017 at 23:05
  • @phoog There is a difference between academic robes and parliamentary vestments. That is that academic robes are actually supposed to be clothes and are just traditional. The clergy wore them for work, not spiritual reasons. The vestments of the peers are not clothes, they are overgarments that go over their regular clothes, just like a priest's vestments, and they symbolize the holy devotion to Christ just in the same way that a priest's vestments do. Thus, academic robes are not sacred garments, but royal vestments are sacred garments.
    – Cicero
    Apr 3, 2017 at 23:10

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