An Insight into the Wig and Gown Tradition among Nigerian Lawyers

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Insight into the Wig and Gown Tradition, Nigerian Lawyers
Like other Africans, Nigerian lawyers have remained attached to the wig and gown tradition despite unfavorable climates

Have you ever wondered why Nigerian lawyers wear those black robes/gowns and white wigs when they appear in court?

Here is an insight.

After the British colonized Nigeria, the country adopted the same legal system and by extension all the paraphernalia that came with it. One of which was the costume of the British lawyers.

But, how did the British even come about the wig?

The culture of lawyers wearing wigs in court actually has its roots in fashion! This is a perspective that may ne unknown to many lawyers today.

Charles II returned to England from France and brought with him the trend of the ‘periwig‘from Louis XIV’s court. English society adopted the trend, as did lawyers. It became the ‘in-thing’ for people, especially wealthy people, to wear wigs.

This perspective presupposes that wigs were not exclusive to lawyers then.

The practice of wearing wigs fell into 2 camps:

The first was for those who wore wigs in order to hide the fact that they were getting bald, and those who wore them because they had shaved their hair in order to prevent infestations (lice infestations was a big worry back then).

So, it was fashionable to see everyday people (obviously only the wealthy people could afford it) wearing wigs.

That was how the wearing of wigs got into the courts. However, over the years, the wearing of wigs began to get less and less fashionable and eventually people stopped wearing them.

However, by this time, lawyers and judges felt it sufficiently differentiated them from others and so they kept on the practice. More than 300 years down the line, we are still stuck with them.

What about the black robe or gown?

Like the wearing of wigs, the culture of gowns was borrowed from the prevailing practice of the time, however, in the case of gowns, it had a little twist.

People wore gowns back in the 17th century, as it was part of the common attire they used. However, they wore very colourful gowns. The black gown was worn as a mourning gown after the death of Charles II in 1685. After the mourning period, the lawyers decided to keep wearing it, as they felt it symbolises the sombre nature of the profession and neutrality.

Insight into the Wig and Gown Tradition,  Nigerian Lawyers
Lawyers in Africa feel wigs and gowns make them stand out

The black robe worn by lawyers also has a weird piece of triangular cloth attached to the left shoulder, often described as ‘violin-shaped’, which is cut in two lengthways. The origin of this is a bit more uncertain, but there are two theories on it.

The first was that it was once a money sack for payment of lawyers’ brief fees. According to some, it is divided in half to create two segments, one for gold coins, and the other for silver.

The idea was that since lawyers were initially not openly paid for their work, clients placed ex-gratia payment into the pocket, literally behind their back, to preserve their dignity. Therefore, because they could not see how much they were being paid, the quality of their advocacy in court could not be compromised.

The second theory was that the triangular cloth was a derivative of the mourning hood introduced following the death of Charles II, in keeping with traditional mourning dress of the time.

Whatever the case, wigs and gowns have remained with us in Nigeria ever since it was brought. Despite the advocacy for their abolition by some radical lawyers, majority seem to prefer their preservation, arguing that they make lawyers stand out.

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