by James Hunt

The UK's judiciary is often mocked for being out of touch with the society they represent—likely, in part, because of the faintly ridiculous wigs and robes they wear.

It's not unusual for members of high officiary to wear a uniform, of course. Priests and archbishops wear robes and hats—but unlike judges, these are mostly reserved for official and ceremonial functions. Even the Queen doesn't wear her actual crown full-time.

So why do British judges still wear wigs?

The tradition of "court dress" dates back almost 700 years, to the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377). At the time, a long robe, cowl, and cloak were standard dress for attending the royal court. At the time the material for the robes—usually ermine, taffeta, and/or silk—was given to judges in the form of a grant from the Crown. Although the colors changed over the years, the same dress was retained until 1635, when it was formalized in the "Judges Rules."

Since then, there have been small changes to the type and style of robes that judges wear, sometimes allied with changes to the court structure and sometimes not. But the wigs? They were a major addition which occurred in the 17th century, purely because the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) made them fashionable to all members of polite society.

Surprisingly, the judiciary actually resisted this change in fashion at first. Prior to the 17th century, the only requirement regarding hair was that lawyers and judges maintained theirs as clean and short. Even as late as the 1680s, portraits show judges sitting or standing wig-free. But the trend finally caught on, and even though they started to fall out of favor with the public by the 1760s, wigs remained part of the formal dress of lawyers, judges, bishops, and coachmen.

Although the requirement for bishops to wear wigs was dropped in the early 1800s, the tradition persists in the courts—and with good reasons. Despite the high cost and associated discomfort, some people argue that court dress enforces the authority of the law, by setting them apart visually from the public. Others say it prevents favoritism, ensuring that the opinion of a jury cannot be influenced by the dress of a barrister.

In more recent times, the requirements have been substantially relaxed, and the use of robes and wigs is mostly seen during criminal cases and at formal events. It's possible that they'll be discarded entirely within our lifetimes. For now, just enjoy the strange mixture of absurdity and impressiveness that accompanies these strange traditions—ones which have persisted for centuries without anyone being entirely clear as to why.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.