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Why Do British Judges Wear Wigs?

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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.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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