People have been wearing wigs ever since Ancient Egyptian times, but the legal wig wearing phenomenon is more recent.
Barrister wigs are most commonly made out of horsehair, but there are other options, and this guide will take you through the different types of hair and fibre that can be used and how they can be all brought together to make the perfect wig for your legal proceedings.
Origin of Legal Wigs
The concept of legal wigs first arose in France in the seventeenth century. Louis XIV wore a wig to hide syphilis, the trend spreading first through the upper echelons of French society before being picked up by Charles II and the English nobility as well.
Barristers made up a sizeable portion of the upper-middle class and so took up the act of wearing wigs as well as a sign of respect to the king and the upper classes.
These original wigs were made out of black horsehair, coarse and tightly woven, but black horsehair soon proved to be problematic in the upkeep. The hair needed to be looked after with perfumes, powders, and oils that ran down onto barristers’ clothes, resulting in some wear and tear.
For whatever reason – perhaps the dripping oil problem – wigs gradually went out of fashion. But it wouldn’t be forever, and thanks to one man in the nineteenth century, the legal wig experienced a resurgence in popularity that would have a marked effect on court proceedings for centuries to come.
The Ravenscroft White Barrister Wig
In 1822, early in George IV’s reign, Humphrey Ravenscroft solved the problem of the black horsehair wig. The solution was a simple one: use white horsehair instead.
White horsehair was finer and softer than black horsehair, which negated the need for the same level of maintenance and meant that the barristers’ clothes would no longer suffer that kind of damage.
For two hundred years now, white horsehair wigs have been the precedent for legal wear, each wig symbolising the tradition and history that came before it. This is because white horsehair has proved itself as an exemplary material.
Its similarity to the softness of human hair is a mark in its favour, making it a perfect fit for barristers. The fine hair is taken from the horse’s mane, which is softer than the coarse, thick hair found in their tails, with the softer hair being better suited for the short barrister wig.
Alternate Hairs for Wigs
While horsehair is the traditional and common choice when it comes to legal wigs on the whole, why not branch out into other hairs that share very similar traits with horsehair that could prove to be suitable substitutes?
Human hair has a lot of similarities with horsehair, both being fine and soft, which makes it a very viable candidate for barrister wigs.
One version of human hair wigs to consider is virgin, a natural and untreated hair wig proven to be strong and durable. The second is Remy which is chemically processed with style and colour but with less natural resilience.
Synthetic Human Hair
Synthetic hair is manufactured from fibres in a factory. Its imitation of human hair also makes it a suitable alternative to horsehair, mimicking the softness and fineness so acutely that no-one would be able to tell the difference.
Horsehair isn’t the only animal option on the market for making wigs, let alone barrister wigs.
Buffalo hair has also been used to make wigs back in the day. It has some of the same traits as human hair and horsehair, being soft enough to be worthy of barrister wigs. The ethics of collecting buffalo hair, though is a mark against it, both environmentally and in terms of animal rights.
The Rise of Vegan Barrister Wigs
Sustainability is the name of the game in recent years. So when choosing your first – or new – barrister wig, it is important to consider whether the materials are sustainable.
Hemp is the most popular material used in making vegan barrister wigs, a drive headed by barrister Samuel March, an animal rights protection activist. Hemp can be made from plants like cannabis and agave, found in the flowers, stems and leaves. Hemp has also proven to be a durable material in other inventions – no one wants a rope that isn’t strong and resilient.
How Barrister Wigs Are Made
For the more curious amongst you, a handmade horsehair barrister wig will take three weeks to complete with the weaving together of hairs, curling or coiling strands to get that iconic crimped look.
It’s always important to make sure the horsehair has been washed to clean it of any diseases before selecting darker whites to weave into the wig. Darker shades help make the wig look older, which is beneficial for all new barristers as it allows them to look reputable and experienced in the public eye.
Horsehair has proven to be a classic and iconic material for barrister wigs, but tradition is starting to give way to more modern approaches like synthetic fibres and hemp. There’s nothing to worry about, though. Whatever the material used for wigs, you will always look as smart and professional as ever, with new materials proving to be just as resilient as the traditional horsehair.