Judicial Robes From Around The World

In every society that has ever existed, few professions have carried the status and prestige as the judge. The reasons why are hardly surprising — judges often hold our futures — or even lives — in their hands, and it only makes sense for such people to be both revered and dignified.

Historically, judges were often pulled from the upper crust of society — your priests, your nobles, your moneyed elite — since these were the only folks considered wise and worldly enough to make sound decisions. As upper-crust types, they were naturally quite prone to fancy dress, including wigs, robes, ostentatious jewelery, and fancy hats. Today, judges in most nations of the world continue to dress in this style as a nod to their aristocratic heritage.

Why do judges wear black?

In most countries of the world justices wear black, or at the very least garments with some black trim or lining. The traditional story holds that the custom began in 17th Century England. In 1694 all the nation's judges attended the funeral of Queen Mary (1662-1694) dressed in black robes as a sign of mourning, and because the queen was so beloved, they kept mourning for many years afterwards. Britain then became a great global superpower that everyone either copied or was conquered by, which led to black robes becoming the de facto world standard. This is obviously a fairly broad explanation that sounds more than a little apocryphal, but most historians generally accept the broad shape of it.

At the same time, black was a broadly popular color in 17th Century Europe in general. Both Catholics and Protestant clergy began wearing black around this time, and the color has long been associated with Godly authority and dignity as a result. 17th Century Puritan Protestants, who were quite socially and politically influential in England, Holland, and Scandinavia, considered black the most neutral and unpretentious color, and thus appropriate for people in positions of trust and dignity. Black was also just a broadly fashionable color with a lot of people in those days — as it is now. Chances are, there was no one factor that got judges wearing black in the 17th century, but rather a milieu of distinct — but related — European cultural influences.

In any case, as we shall see, the idea that judges only wear black is a bit of a myth to begin with. Red is easily the second-most popular color for judicial robes, and it's a color with dramatically different cultural associations. Today, when a new court is being set up somewhere, judges wear black simply because it's expected.

Judges of the World

The following is an investigative look at the various judicial costumes worn in some of the major countries of the world. To make it flow, I have arranged the countries in a vaguely geographic order.

Whenever possible I have tried to use the best possible photos. Keep in mind however that in many countries judges are not to be photographed, and thus it can be quite difficult to obtain good pics of them.

United States of America
America's first Chief Justice,
John Jay in 1794
A typical US judge today
A female American judge

Judge's costumes in the United States are rooted in rebellion against English tradition. After securing independence from Britian, many of the Founders wanted to purge their 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 decidedly aristocratic judicial wigs were eliminated, but the robes of office remained. In true federalist form, further regulation of judicial costume was left to the jurisdiction of the individual states.

Originally federal judges of the United States wore grandiose robes, as you can see above. These got simpler as time went on, and gradually evolved into a simple black "zip-up" robe that today is worn by all members of the federal judiciary.

Many states — especially in the South — shared Jefferson's original mentality, and had their judges wear no official costume for a long period of time. This changed around the mid 19th Century when the states and feds began to harmonize more traditions, and from then on almost every state-level judge in America has worn a standardized black robe over a business suit. Women judges tend to accessorize with a frilly white collar, though this varies from judge to judge.

Despite the standardization, there are still some quaint exceptions to the black robe hegemony. It's fairly common in the US for members of a state supreme court wear a distinct costume. For example:

- In Maryland, judges of the Court of Appeals (Maryland's supreme court) wear red robes, with British-style white "cross" collars.
- The Supreme Court justices of Pennsylvania wear special red, yellow, and green sashes over their black robes.
- The Supreme Court Justices of Georgia and Arkansas wear gray robes with black linings and black bars on the sleeves.
- The Supreme Court justices of Puerto Rico wear robes with Spanish-style frills in the robe cuffs (see Spain, below).

The late Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, famously modified his 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. Supreme Court judges in the United States also used to wear cyndrical hats for a while, but only the famously conservative Justice Anton Scalia seems interested in keeping this tradition going.

Supreme Court Justice in Maryland
Chief Justice of Pennsylvania
Supreme Court Justice in Georgia/Arkansas


District court judge in Louisiana  Chief Justice Rehnquist  Supreme Court hat
 

Countries inspired by America
Israeli judge
Filipino Chief Justice
Mexican Supreme Court Justice

In several other countries judges wear plain back robes very similar to the robes worn by American judges.

Israeli judges wear the same basic plain black robes as Americans, except they keep them open and loose like coats. Mexican judges only wear robes at the Supreme Court level, and these are likewise identical in style to the Americans'. Filipino judges are the same as well, the only exception being judges of the Filipino Supreme Court, who wear special robes with purple outer lining.


South / Latin America
 
Brazil
Peru
Venezuela

Judicial robes never really caught on in most of Latin and South America. Most judges in that region don't wear any sort of official costume at all while in court, just their normal business suits. Sometimes they might wear a medal or something, as we can see in the example of Peru, above.

In a few countries the Supreme Court justices wear robes, but these are usually just the American / Israeli / Spanish solid black type things, and nothing special. The only notable exceptions I have found are shown above.


United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
A high court judge
A lower court judge
The Lord Chancellor

Like everything else in Britain, British judicial costumes are regulated according to a myriad of ancient traditions, customs, and laws. Many of these rules date back to at least the 14th Century, making the modern British judicial system one of the world's oldest.

The British judicial branch is very complex, and is composed of dozens of different courts of jurisdiction with names like the "Queen's Bench" the "Chancery Division" and the "Crown Court." Depending on which branch the judge belongs to, he could wear one of many different costumes. Unlike many other countries which limit their judges to wearing only red or black, in Britain judges wear almost every color. There are judges with blue robes, green robes, white robes, and even purple and pink ones.

There are several constants, however. All upper court justices in Britain wear the famous "full bottomed" powdered wigs while lower court judges wear the shorter "barrister" wig. This is a holdover from the time when judges were members of the aristocracy, and it was considered fashionable for important people to show off their social status by wearing long flowing wigs. Once a year there is a special ceremony in Westminster Abbey during which all of the nation's judges assemble to commemorate the start of the legal year. On formal occasions such as that, all judges wear "full bottomed" wigs.

Most British judges also wear a special stiff white "cross" collar, sometimes called "Geneva tabs." The exact origins of this collar are obscure, but some have speculated it was supposed to represent the twin tablets of the ten commandments that were carried by Moses. The same collar is worn by high-ranking clergy within the Anglican church, and the clergy of some other Protestant denominations as well.

Britain's highest-ranking judicial official, and de facto Chief Justice is the Lord Chancellor. He wears a special gold and black robe, or at least he used to — it was officially retired during the Tony Blair administration.

More high court justices
A criminal court judge
A civil court judge
 

Former British Colonies
Jamaica
Uganda
Zambia

For whatever reason, the judges in many ex-British colonies have never bothered to change their costumes. Frankly, I would have assumed such outfits would be the first thing to go upon assuming independence, as nothing screams "legacy of colonialism" quite like a black guy in a white wig.

From what I have been able to tell, the British style of dress is worn in every former British colony in Africa, as well as in Singapore, the Caribbean, Belize, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. South Asian countries have changed their outfits slightly, as has Canada, as we will see below.

In Australia the High Court judges abandoned their wigs and red robes in the 1980's in favor of American-style black ones. Some states in the Australian federation have followed suit, while others have not. Wigs were recently phased out of all courts in New Zealand, except the Supreme Court.

Judges in the Republic of Ireland continue to wear British-style robes and wigs. After Ireland became independent in the late 1930's there was a half-hearted attempt to introduce distinctly "Gaelic" costumes to the nation's judges. These never caught on, however, and today Irish judges remain largely indistinguishable from their hated British counterparts.

In most African countries the elaborate fur-lining of British judicial robes has been ditched for the simple reason that it's too hot for the judges to wear.

Another notable innovation is the the fact that in many former colonies the nation's Chief Justice often wears the gold-trimmed robes of the Lord Chancellor. This creates an interesting clash between the symbolism of the British judicial system, which was too complicated for any colony to emulate, and the American-style "Supreme Court" system which most colonies actually adopted.

Zimbabwe
Hong Kong
New Zealand
Belize Ireland Trinidad and Tobago

 

Scotland
Appeals Court judge
Lord Justice of Scotland
The two together

Despite the fact that Scotland is a component part of the United Kingdom, they have a distinct judicial system and their judges dress differently.

Well their high court justices at least. Lower court justices wear the same outfits as their British counterparts. Members of the Scottish Court of Appeal and the Scottish High Court of Justiciary however wear unique red-and-white robes with large red crosses on them. The Chief Justice of the courts wears a unique outfit with special fur-lining and no crosses.

Scottish judges also don't wear the "cross" collar for some reason. Instead, their collar is just a single strip of stiff fabric.

 


Canada
Lower court judge
Provincial High Court judge
Supreme Court Judge

Canadian judges dress similar to British justices but with a few key differences. The most obvious difference is that unlike justices in most of the Commonwealth, Canadian judges do not wear wigs. Different regions of Canada ended the use of judicial wigs at different times. In Ontario and Quebec wigs have not been worn since at least the mid 19th Century. In British Columbia they were formally abolished in 1905. I am not exactly sure what the situation was in the Maritimes. I would assume that because of Newfoundland's extended history as a sovereign crown colony the wigs were retained for a longer period than in the rest of the country.

Middle level judges wear black robes with color lining, or a sash on the front. The color depends on the type of court they are part of:

- Supreme / Appeals Court of New Brunswick- gold lining
- Supreme / Appeals Court of Nova Scotia- black sash
- Supreme / Appeals Court of other provinces- red sash
- Provincial Family Court Court- green sash
- Tax Court of Canada- purple lining
- Citizenship Court- burgundy lining

Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada wear robes similar to that of High Court judges in Britain. The main difference is that the fur lining on the Canadian judges is considerably fluffier, contributing to the infamous "Santa" look that Canadians so often mock. Canadian Supreme Court judges also have tri-cornered black hats, but these are never worn and usually just displayed as an accessory.

Court of Appeals judge
(New Brunswick)
Tax court judge
Citizenship judge

South Asia
Chief Justice of Pakistan
Chief Justice of India
Chief Justice of Malaysia

Some of the ex-British colonies in South Asia have given up the wigs as well. While they still wear some of the British-style dress, most have likewise abandoned the more extravagant red fur-trimmed robes and have instead made the simple black robes the standard fare for almost all ranks of judges.

India apparently abolished wigs quite early after independence, probably either in the late 50's or early 60's.

There has been somewhat of an ongoing struggle in Pakistan over the issue of court dress. Judges with a more Islamist philosophy (such as the nation's former Chief Justice, pictured above) have tended to eschew symbols of British law, and as a result often don't wear wigs in court and simply wear their robes over a traditional "Nehru" style jacket. The country's more secular judges, however, (such as the current Chief Justice) continue to wear the wigs and fancy collars. So costume really varies from judge to judge. Unlike his Indian counterpart, the Chief Justice of Pakistan still wears the Lord Chancellor's robe.

Malaysia is another Muslim nation, and the situation is largely the same as in Pakistan. The hats the Malaysian and Pakistani guys are wearing are traditional Muslim hats, and don't have anything to do with the formal judicial costume.

Sri Lanka only abolished the British monarchy in 1972, making it likely the most Anglophilic country in the region. It never abolished the wigs or the red fur-lined robes.

 

France
Criminal Court Justice
Court of Appeal Justice
Supreme Court Justice

French judges are known for their distinctive red robes, but lower court judges actually wear plain black ones like in Britain and America. Both male and female judges wear plain white scarfs as a collar.

Mid-level justices wear a combination red-and-black robe, while France's Supreme Court justices wear completely red robes with elaborate fur-linings. Wearing medals on robes is quite common in France as well.

Originally, all French judges wore little cylindrical hats, with red hats for the high judges and black ones for the lower justices. These have been largely phased out in recent years, however.

One other distinct feature about French judges, which is hard to see in the above photos, is that part of the judicial costume involves a long strip of fabric which is slung over the left shoulder and dangles down. The piece often has a small strip of white fur at the end. They call it the epitoge, I don't know if it has any translatable word in English.

Judges in Switzerland dress exactly the same as judges in France, presumably a holdover from when the French conquered the country in the late 18th Century.

Another interesting side-note about French judicial dress- French university graduates and chancellors wear the exact same robes as judges.

 
President of the Chamber of Justice
Court of First Instance Justice


Former French Colonies
Haiti
Togo
Rwanda

Like Britain's colonies, the former colonies of France have never bothered to change their judicial costumes in the post-independence era. The only distinct feature is that they still wear the little hats.

Along with the countries listed above, this sort of dress is worn in places such as Lebanon, Cambodia, Madagascar, and even Algeria.

It's probably safe to assume the Communist rulers of Vietnam have abolished such fancy dress.

 

Italy
lower court judges
high court judge

Italian judges wear black robes over their suits. Around their neck they wear a white "dickie" with a small white bow-tie and frilled collar. On each shoulder of the robe is a gold tassel. Italian lawyers wear robes with silver tassels.

Italian judges used to also wear little black hats that looked very much like the hats worn by French judges. Like the French hats, however, these have been largely phased out in recent years.

Italian judges


Constitutional Court



Germany
lower court judge
Federal judge
Constitutional Court judges

Court dress in the German Federal Republic is fairly standardized. Basically there are various different combinations of robe color and front linings, which represent different ranks.

Lowest-level German judges wear black robes with black velvet lining.

In the high courts of the various German states, the outfits vary from place to place, but usually black robes with red trim are the most common. In state Social Courts, they wear black with violet hem.

Judges of the German Federal Courts wear purple robes with red lining, while judges of the Federal Patent Court wear black robes with blue front hem.

German judges of the Federal Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, wear solid red robes, said to be based on the costumes worn by 15th Century Italian judges (as made famous in the paintings of Piero della Francesca).

The interesting quirk about German judges is that they always wear plain white neckties under their robes. I assume this tradition started once men got tired of wearing traditional frilly collars.

I'm sure by now I don't need to mention the fact that German judges also have hats they almost never wear.

 

Norway
Low court judge
Court of Appeal judge
Supreme Court justice

Judges in Scandinavian countries don't tend to wear very elaborate robes, or even robes at all, in most cases.

Norway is one of the few countries in the world that employs "lay judges," which is to say, civilian judges, along with legally accredited ones. In most higher-ranking courtrooms, Norwegians are judged by a judicial panel containing some lay judges and some accredited ones. Only the accredited judges wear robes.

Norwegian judicial robes appear to be based on the style of judicial dress worn in Germany.

 


Portugal
 
Justice of the Constitutional Court
Justice of the Court of Auditors
 

Like their Spanish neighbors, Portuguese judges wear solid black robes, and high court judges wear medallions around their necks. The main difference is that in Portugal every judge wears the medallion (not just the Chief Justice), and the robes apparently have very high collars, making it a mystery as to what they are wearing underneath.



Greece
Greek judges
Greek judges  
Supreme Court (penal)
Supreme Court (administrative)

High court judges in Greece wear collared tunics with special bibs. Judges of different rank also tend to have special accessories, such as fur on the shoulders of their tunics or special chains.


Lower ranking Greek judges usually just wear business suits.





Benelux Countries
A Dutch Civil Court Judge
A high court judge in Belgium
Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of Indonesia

In the so-called "Benelux" bloc (Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg) all the judges dress largely alike. Lower court judges wear simple back robes with a wide, flat collar and a button-up front. High court judges wear a more elaborate red-and-black ensemble with a frillier collar.

The only exception to this is the French region of Belgium. The judges in this area wear French costumes, complete with hat.

They wear Dutch-style robes in Indonesia as well, which of course is a former Dutch colony.



South Africa
High Court Judge
High Court Judge
Constitutional Court Judge

South Africa is another country that wears British-style robes, though Dutch influences can be seen as well, a legacy of Dutch colonialism.

High Court justices of South Africa wear different robes depending on the nature of the case being heard. The black robes from the first picture are worn when they hear civil cases and appeals, while the red and black robes are worn during criminal cases.

After apartheid ended and the political system was restructured, South Africa's highest court became the Constitutional Court. Their judges have special green robes.

   
Magistrate Court Judge
   


Eastern Europe
Russia
Ukraine
Croatia

During the Communist days judges didn't wear robes, as these were considered (rightly, I suppose) symbols of the old aristocratic order. Instead, Eastern European judges just wore those bland Mao jackets, or military uniforms.

Today Eastern European judges all wear different robes, though they're all fairly simple in design. Some of their costumes are nearly identical to the robes worn in Western Europe.

It appears that a common trend is for Eastern European judges to wear some sort of large medallion or chain around their neck

Estonia
Slovenia
Armenia


Poland
Polish judges
Polish judges Polish judge
Lower court Supreme Court Constitutional Court

Polish judges have interesting, colorful uniforms with wide collars and a small scarf-like thing. When there are multiple judges in a courtroom, the chairman of the proceedings wears a chain with an eagle, the symbol of Poland. Polish judges also wear hats, but as usual, not during proceedings.

Low court judges have wine-colored scarfs and trim on their robes, justices of the Supreme Court have purple collars, scarfs, and hats, and Constitutional Court judges have red-and-white scarfs and trim — red and white being the colors of the Polish flag.


 

Independent Asian Countries
South Korea Supreme Court Justice
President of Taiwan's Judicial Yuan
Thailand Constitutional Court

I realize these are not great photos but hopefully you get the gist.

Some countries in Asia were never colonized by outside powers. As a result the judges of China, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand don't wear European-style costumes unlike the judges in many of their neighboring nations.

For some reason or another the judges of Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand have all ended up wearing very similar costumes. These consist of a black, American-style robe with colored trim.

Japanese judges just wear plain black. As their judges wear this costume as well, I suppose technically I could have included the Philippines in this category too (see above).

In China, judges originally wore military uniforms, like Soviet judges. During the reforms of the 80's and 90's these were ditched in favor of bland, black Japanese/American style robes.



The Muslim World
Chief Justice of Afghanistan
Chief Justice of Iran
Libyan judge

Like in Asia, there are a few countries in the greater Middle East that were never directly colonized by outsiders. These also tend to be some of the more fundamentalist countries of the modern era.

As fundamentalist Muslim countries tend to be quite anti-Western (to put it mildly) judges in these nations wear very simplistic costumes, denouncing fancy courtroom dress as a foreign practice. In Iran, for example, the judges rarely wear anything more than traditional Muslim turbans and robes. As Islam is the source of the nation's laws, it doesn't make sense to dress as anything other than a Muslim while in court.

Judges in Libya and Egypt simply wear green sashes over their business suits. Green is the color of Islam.

Iraqi judge
President of Turkey's High Court
Egyptian High Court judge


International Law
International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea
International Criminal Court
International Court of Justice

Even judges in supra-national judicial bodies wear official robes of one form or another. In order to be as international as possible, these costumes tend to be as bland and generic as possible, as to not clearly look inspired by any one particular nation. That being said, I think they are quite clearly based on the French robes.

European Court of
Human Rights
European Court of First Instance
European Court of Justice

No robes?

In some countries judges simply don't wear anything special at all, just normal business suits.

Based on my research, I have found that Greek judges, as well as judges in most of the Scandinavian countries don't wear any sort of robes.

Help me out!

I am keen to make this guide as comprehensive as possible. If you have any information, photos, corrections, or clarifications that you think I need, please email me at jjmccullough@gmail.com