Court dress is referred to the traditional garments council must wear while in the presence of a high, or supreme, court trial. In nearly all of the common law practicing countries, modified forms of mandatory court dress are present, with many common themes inter-connecting them. All modern common law court dress is derived from the 16th and 17th centuries in Britain, where the use of powdered wigs and long draping gowns was conceived. Over the past 4 centuries, there has been very little in the way of evolution of these original garments, with judges and barristers still resembling their long-gone predecessors.
In common law countries around the world, a prevalent theme in barrister court dress is the use of wing tip shirts and tabs, alongside a traditional barrister gown. A wingtip shirt actually refers to a classical white dress shirt with a specific style of collar known as a “winged collar”. In contrast to a standard button-down dress shirt collar, a wing tip collar does not utilize buttons to hide the straps of the band placed around the neck. The winged collar is characterized by having stiff stitching around the back, with the two points at the front of the collar standing up horizontally. In other words, a wing tip collar can be imagined as a traditionally button down collar that was shortened significantly and popped into an open position, with the points facing outwards. These collars were a high fashion staple in the early 19th century, where high society individuals would flaunt this collar-type with a bow tie and top hat.
Barrister bands, or ‘tabs’ as we call them in Canada, refer to the neckpiece that is tied around the barristers wing tipped collar, very much like a tie. Tabs in common law countries are all fairly consistent in style, and are usually comprised of a white fabric that is spliced into two even length strips, that hang just below the neck and onto the chest. These tabs almost look like a hybrid between a tie and a bowtie, and are custom fitted to the individual wearer. Before the use of modern day tabs many court officials and barristers would wear something called a ruff. A ruff was an extremely large puffed up collar that encompassed the head 360 degrees, with a layered pattern often weaved into it. It was speculated that ruffs were replaced by modern versions of tabs in the mid 1600s.
As stated above, common law countries are those who employ this specific type of court dress in high courts. Listed below are the majority of common law countries that employ this specific style of court dress:
- United States
- South Africa
- Hong Kong
- New Zealand
- South Korea
However some countries have begun to modernize their dress codes, straying away from the 17th century styles. Most notably in the past decade in the UK, there have been a number of significant amendments made to the court dress that had been longstanding for centuries. The Supreme Court in Britain has issued new, sleeker, styles of robes for judges, solicitors, and barristers alike that encompass new colour patterns to signify level in the court. Although the fabric, density, and colours of the robes may be subject to change, the wingtip shirt and tab is still an essential part of the new formal wardrobe in the UK. I believe its safe to say that wingtips and tabs are a court dress staple, and will remain a relevant garment in common law countries for centuries to come, just as in the centuries of the past.