Judicial History 101: Why US Judges Dress the Way They Do

If a uniform has about seven centuries to evolve, how dignified—or unique—can it look?

Ask yourself this the next time you see a federal judge or a Supreme Court justice, because, yes, the robes worn by these men and women of the Bench looks to a tradition that goes as far back as the early 1300s.

Back in the Olden Days

Modern American judge’s uniform traces its roots to the good old days of British aristocracy, a system that ensured the privileged few had a hand on powerful posts of the land.

You see, being a judge back then was a privilege enjoyed exclusively by the members of the nobility. Hence, judges had to dress as representatives of their elite class, wearing robes made of weasel fur called ermine.

This may sound strange, but during those times, judges in full regalia—robes, wigs, and all—wouldn’t cause much of a fuss as they walked down the street, simply because those were the norm of the day.

The robe of a High Court judge, for example, was based on the correct dress code for attending the royal court during the reign of Edward III. It had a long, hooded robe with a cowl covering the shoulders and a mantle or cloak, pretty much like the one you see below.

The material for these robes was originally given to judges as a grant from the Crown, and included ermine and either taffeta or silk. The colors were violet for winter and green in summer.

The early 1600s saw the definitive guide to court dress published in Judges’ Rules, though this didn’t introduce new costumes so much as just prescribe what existing robes should be worn, and when.

After 1635, the correctly-dressed judge would have worn a black robe faced with miniver (a light-colored fur) in winter, and violet or scarlet robes faced with shot-pink taffeta, in summer. A black girdle, or cincture, was worn with all robes.

So, if judges could wear colorful robes back then, when did black robes become a judge’s most recognizable uniform?

Well, that’s easy.

Dressing for  a Royal Funeral

The black robe tradition began when all of England’s judges attended the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Mary II in 1694. Of course, they all wore black robes, a natural, classy gesture when mourning the death of a beloved or important person.

Unexpectedly, the mourning period extended a few years after Mary’s burial, making the custom of wearing black robes a permanent fixture in the English judiciary.

And, as Englishmen ventured into the New World and carved out colonies, they brought their traditions with them, including the black robes of their judges.

The quest for colonies, therefore, spread throughout the US and brought the world a judiciary tradition that persists today.

 A National Identity 

After the American Revolution, many of the Founding Fathers wanted to purge the nation of any symbols of the old English aristocratic order, including what Thomas Jefferson called the “needless official appeal” of judges.

Others disagreed, and eventually a compromise was reached in which the hated judicial wigs were banned but the robes of office remained. In true Federalist form, further regulation of judicial costume was left to the jurisdiction of the individual states.

Many states, especially in the South, shared Jefferson’s original mentality, and had their judges wear no official costume for a long period. This changed around the mid-19th century, when the states and feds began to increasingly harmonize, and from then on almost every judge in America has worn a standardized black robe over a formal business suit.

Women judges tend to accessorize with a frilly white collar, though this varies from judge to judge.

Unity in Diversity

Despite the standardization, there are still some exceptions to the black robe hegemony. It’s common in the US for members of a state Supreme Court to wear a distinct costume.

For example, in Maryland, judges of the Court of Appeals wear red robes, with British-style tab collars.

The Supreme Court justices of Pennsylvania wear special red, yellow, and green sashes over their black robes.

The Supreme Court justices of Georgia wear gray robes with black lining and black bars on the sleeves.

The late US Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, famously modified his own Chief Justice robe in 1994 to make it resemble the robe of the British Lord Chancellor. His robe had four gold stripes on each arm, but was otherwise the same as most American judicial robes.

There was some speculation that this tradition would continue with the next Chief Justice, John Roberts, but he has instead reverted back to wearing a plain black robe.

Not Just Any Ordinary Robe

With the richness of judicial robe history, it won’t be hard to imagine that fad changes are coming in the future. However, one thing will remain ever the same: every time judges put on that uniform, it should remind them to uphold justice and fairness at all times.

Everywhere in the world, judges are treated with great respect; in turn, they are expected to perform their duties with a solemn sense of dignity, wisdom, and honor.

And most of the time, fulfilling these duties starts with simply wearing with pride that robe that eloquently sums up centuries of honorable judicial function and contribution.