judging on high – dressing tall judges for a tall court – new robes for Australia’s high court judges


Melville Weston Fuller the Chief Justice 1908 (US Supreme Court)




Indeed it’s the most learned gentlemen of the Supreme Court of the United States, the Fuller Court (Chief Justice Melville Fuller) of the 1890s – 1910 era.

It was also the Plessy v Ferguson Court that created the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” which institutionalized segregation in the United States until overturned in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.

Is it just me or are the Honourable Justices’ robes kind of baggy, over-sized & ill-fitting at least for some Justices?  Too much fabric? Even look a bit like dressing gowns or some sort of Halloween garb or male mourning robes.

Indeed me thinks some assistance with dressing & presentation before the photo shoot would have been helpful.  Of course it was the early 1900s.

See below where it is confirmed that the robes worn by the justices of the High Court of Australia are more elaborately tailored than those of their US counterparts.



A clipping from The Daily Picayune in New Orleans reporting on the 1892 arrest of Homer Plessy for riding in a ‘whites-only’ car. The members of the United States Supreme Court who would decide Plessy’s case, leading to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. (Photo courtesy of Supreme Court of the United States)

In 1892, Homer Plessy took a seat and made a stand all at once





It’s 1903 & here you see the most learned gentleman of the High Court of Australia fully wigged & robed, including white neckties (bands or jabots).  The long wigs worn by their honours in the front row are the full bottomed wigs.

Looks like the 2 at the back are wearing plain linen bands worn at the neck (not the ruffs) which are really two rectangles of linen, tied at the throat. Not sure about the winged collar & may be the turn-down collar seen on a typical shirt today. Hard to tell from the image.

The 3 judges in the front row look like they may be wearing the winged collar.

Perhaps if the Fuller court (above) had worn ‘powdered’ wigs & jabots they might have presented somewhat less disheveled 🙂  Amazing what a wig & jabot can do in changing not just the look, but the overall aesthetic of legal dress in Australia & elsewhere. The French wear a particular type of white jabot but do not don the ‘powdered’ wigs.

Alas, such oddities (wigs) are not now worn by justices when sitting on the High Court in Australia. They keep it simple now by wearing just the black robe instead of the traditional attire of a black robe, white jabot & ‘powdered’ wig. In fact who wears wigs in what court in Australia can be quite a minefield to traverse these days.

In the High Court of Australia, justices wear plain black robes with zippered fronts over normal attire. They do not wear wigs, collars, bands or jabots. The robes are similar in appearance to those worn by Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, although they are more elaborately tailored. These robes have been worn since 1988, when the High Court abandoned the previous court dress of black silk robes, bar jackets, jabots or bands and full-bottomed wigs and lace cuffs on formal occasions and bench wigs for ordinary business attire.



Barristerial witches & their Juniors, the quid pro crows


I mentioned here the public intrigue with what we wear in Court & the inevitable questions & comments about lawyers’ court room clothing and attire much of it understandable.  Certainly there is intrigue with what we wear.  “Why do you wear that stuff, you know, that wig thingy, the frilly white thing and that black cloak dress garb?” or “How do you stop the wig falling off?” or “Is it itchy? or “Why do you dress like a witch?”

Can you Imagine sewing one of these robes? Sewing one for myself is definitely not on my ‘To Do’ list. Not even close.

You may enjoy this post where I talked more about the robes we wear in Court & the incident where, in the District Court, my powdered wig fell off, or was on its way sliding down & off, before I slapped my hand on it so fast!  . . .



After that mishap I came to the firm belief that all this elaborate garb is quite unnecessary, a hindrance at times. The French wear the robe & white jabot but no wig. I am definitely not in favour of keeping these accoutrements especially the wig. I prefer the American system of simple, professional business type dress without all the barristerial pomp & circumstance.

. . . and may God save the powdered wig!  Hmph.



Anyway, time to be serious. In this somewhat intriguing world of court attire in Australia, specifically the tall Court robes, you might enjoy this interesting & detailed blog post by a weaver named Kay Faulkner.

Ms. Faulkner was involved in the design & weaving of the new robes for the High Court of Australia completed near the end of 2016.  I share here a few images from her blog as well as the link to the post about the new robes wherein she gives us not only a peek into the processes of designing & creating the fabric for the High Court gowns but the gowns themselves. Well worth the read.