I asked my friend this, who is studying to be a lawyer, and he did not know. I told him he wasn’t going to make much of a lawyer, and he argued with me, so I guess he might turn into a good lawyer after all! He guessed that judges starting wearing black out of respect for the loss of the people coming to them for justice. After doing my own research, I found he wasn’t too far off.
Since Greek and Roman times, and probably before, the wearing of special robes has signified a person’s special status in the community. Elders, statesmen, and community leaders wanted to wear something that made them stand out and look important. This tradition made its way into renaissance England, where a lot of our legal traditions come from. The English judges began wearing big, flowing red robes and white powdered wigs as their official dress. This changed somewhat with the death of Queen Mary II in 1694, when during her funeral the judges in attendance all wore black out of respect for the period of mourning. This official period of mourning lasted several years, and after this many judges kept wearing the black robes.
When England colonized North America, they brought all their legal traditions with them, including a judge’s dress. When the United States won its independence, all of the old institutions came under question, and some, like Thomas Jefferson, wanted the judges to wear suits and look like everyone else. John Adams, who was himself a lawyer, wanted to keep the old English tradition. Tradition prevailed, but with a sort of compromise by not rigidly defining what members of the court must wear. Many of the first judges wore the full wig and robe, but the fashion changed in the early 19th century, with the majority switching to simple, black robes. Judges are allowed to choose their own courtroom attire, and many modern judges indirectly honor Mr. Jefferson by wearing normal business attire. This is probably a good thing, in our era, because how can you take a man (or woman) wearing a two-foot white wig seriously?
Posted 1747 day ago