Beginner's Guide to Dressing Like a Barrister
Becoming a barrister is a pretty daunting task. You have to sit an exam, apply for chambers, find an accountant, register for GST, buy a printer, and do all sorts of fun stuff like that. And while you're in the middle of organising it all, you get an email from the Bar Association saying that you have four weeks to organise a full set of wigs and robes, along with a link to a list of approved suppliers. Huh.
It's all a bit overwhelming. No doubt that's why 90% of the readers on my practice course just went to Ludlows—who are across the road from the Bar Association, and have everything right there in store.
But I have never been one to go to the same place that everyone else goes and get the same stuff that everyone else gets. It's just not my style. So naturally, as a good millennial, as soon as I saw the email I immediately jumped on Google and started trying to figure out exactly how I was supposed to go about doing this. Which I did eventually manage to do, but it took some doing.
So I figured that, hey, my first post, which reviewed practice management software for barristers, seems to have been pretty well received. Maybe I can also give back to the readers of the future* by putting everything I learned up on my blog.
The basics: what you need
So you want to be a barrister, do you? The outfit that you need, at least in Sydney, consists of the following:
a "bar jacket";
a wing collar and bands or a jabot;
a blue bag;
dark trousers; and
Pretty simple, no?
All together it looks something like this:**
But don't worry, here's a handy guide to putting it all together.
Item #1: the robes
I'll start with the robes, which are the cornerstone of the whole outfit. After all, it's called being "robed", not being "bar jacketed", or "jaboted" *shudder*.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of variation in the different types of robe available these days. Apparently that wasn't always the case, but the current design dates back to (no kidding) the death of King Charles II in 1685.
As the story goes, back in the Middle Ages the learned men (and yes, they were all men) used to show everyone how learned they were by wearing robes. That went out of style some time in the 1300s; but, as with many things, the legal industry decided to hold onto this particular fashion choice for centuries after everyone else had moved on (except for academics and priests).
Fast forward about 300 years and King Charlie 2.0 croaks it. As a sign of mourning, the whole Bar decides to start wearing identical black gowns. And I suppose they must have liked the "our King just died of horrible internal bleeding" look, because they're still wearing the same thing today. Go figure.
Anyway, I'm getting side-tracked. The robes all look more or less the same, and they are supposed to be long and flowing, so your measurements don't have to be too precise. This makes them the ideal clothing to order online.
Given that the design of the robes does not seem to change much, as I see it there are three things that can affect the decision of which robe to buy. These are:
Number 1 is particularly important for those of us in warmer climates—nobody wants to be walking around in the Australian summer wearing the snow-resistant made-in-Canada version. Also, there seem to be a few stores out there offering robes made out of 100% polyester. Cue my vomit-face emoji: 🤢.
Some also offer polyester-wool blends. But come on, no one wants that. If you're going to court and you're not allowed to wear silk, you at least want to be in 100% wool. And if you're Australian, you want that to be the lightest-weight wool around.
So I decided to go with the superfine worsted gown from Stanley Ley. I liked the idea of having a robe from Temple Bar in London, where they invented robing (and/or stole it from the French), and it specifically says that it's 100% lightweight wool, suitable for hot climates. By contrast, the more renowned Ede & Ravenscroft are more expensive and don't seem to offer a lightweight option.
As for price, I was pretty shocked to see that the Temple Bar robe merchants are significantly cheaper than any of their Australian competitors. That 100% lightweight wool Stanley Ley robe will set you back £162.50 GBP, which, at the time of writing (when the AUD is doing pretty badly), is $292.41 AUD, and the Ede & Ravenscroft version is £199 GBP, which is $358.09 AUD. By comparison, the 100% polyester Australian robe that I linked to earlier will set you back $335 AUD. If you want something made of wool, you're looking at $500 minimum. Our old friends at Ludlows will charge you $545. Macquarie Street is almost double what you will pay on Fleet Street. Work that one out.
Item #2: the wig
Speaking of charging, the wig seems to be by far the most expensive item in the whole getup. A real barrister wig is handmade from 100% horsehair (although apparently there are some synthetic vegan versions these days). Like the robes, or the use of terms like "herein" and "by reason of", this is something that was once the hight of fashion, but that everyone who isn't a lawyer abandoned more than 300 years ago.
And for good reason, that horsehair is itchy and doesn't come cheap. A wig from Ludlows will set you back a cool $1,350, and that Regalia Craft place that sells the polyester robes has them for $935 AUD (hopefully these aren't polyester as well). Over in the UK, Ede & Ravenscroft is £560, which works out at $1,007.25 AUD and Stanley Ley is again undercutting them with a relatively low £425.00 GBP ($764.43 AUD). Then there's also this Legal Tailor place in Hong Kong that sells them for $929.
So it's looking like Stanley Ley is about to win out again—but no! There is another option. And it's just a little north from the Hong Kong supplier I mentioned.
The winner is... Alibaba. Yup, that Alibaba.
For reasons that I can't quite fathom, while the barrister robes on Alibaba all seem to be designed for fancy dress parties rather than courtrooms, there seem to be a few wig manufacturers who have decided to sell what they at least say are handmade horsehair barrister wigs. And, unusually for Alibaba, the minimum order is one item and not 1,000.
I have to admit, I did feel some trepidation about ordering my wig from Alibaba. There was something about getting my barrister gear from a website that's best known for supplying the world with A.R. Mani suits and Louise Vuitton handbags that made me uneasy. And things like this definitely didn't help:
I would like one barrister wig/ lawyer cap /judge cap please! I hear great things about the protein content!
However, after thinking long and hard, a few things won me me over. The first was that, like Ebay and Uber, Alibaba has got to where it is by allowing "crowd-sourced" user ratings to weed out bad suppliers. This means that if a supplier is highly rated on Alibaba they generally won't be too disappointing. Also, the Alibaba wigs seemed to range in value from about $150 to about $500. Now I know that more expensive doesn't always mean better quality, particularly on a website like Alibaba, but I still felt like if I bought something in the $350-$400 range from a highly rated supplier, it would probably be relatively safe.
The second thing was that while the wig is the priciest item in a junior counsel's uniform, it is also the least utilised. These days wigs are not worn in the Federal Court, the Federal Circuit Court, or the Family Court, or in civil matters in the NSW District Court or the Victorian Supreme Court. And the list keeps growing. Really, it seems that they are finally going out of fashion for lawyers (ie we're finally catching up to where everyone else was in the 1790s). That means that I would be using the wig much less often than the rest of the outfit—so why pay more for it?
The last thing was sheer curiosity. If I didn't order the Alibaba wig, I'd never know what it would have been like. Plus I didn't have much to lose. Worst case scenario I'd just cut my losses and buy another wig.
So I bit the bullet and ordered a wig from Quingdao Bolin Hair Products Co Ltd. And as it turns out, it was fine. It's a slightly different style from the ones that everyone else has, but it doesn't look noticeably lower quality. Sure it might fall to pieces in a year or two, but by then I'll hopefully be rolling in those big barrister dollars, and I'll be able to buy one made from the hair of former Melbourne Cup champions, or something.
Item #3: the bar jacket
As an astute tweeter once observed, the bar jacket is an unusual item of clothing:
It's somewhere between a waistcoat with sleeves and something out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
It might be for this reason that it is not a ubiquitous requirement as barristers go. Looking at the international stores: the Australian stores all sell bar jackets; the Canadian stores seem to sell them, but they call them a "barrister's waistcoat"; the New Zealand stores don't seem to sell them; the Hong Kong store doesn't sell them; and, most surprisingly, the British and Irish stores don't seem to sell them. Ede & Ravenscroft has nothing resembling a bar jacket, and neither does Irish vendor Moville. Stanley Ley sell something they call a "bar waistcoat", which looks vaguely like a bar jacket, but is much more like a traditional waistcoat.
On top of that, unlike the rest of the regalia, the bar jacket's origins seem shrouded in mystery. All of the otherwise informative "history of legal dress" websites that I have found (see, eg, here or here) shed no light on it at all. It's all very curious. The only explanation I can find anywhere is in the UK section of the "court dress" page on Wikipedia:
[Male advocates] also wear either a dark double-breasted suit (or with waistcoat if single-breasted) or a black coat and waistcoat and black or grey morning dress striped trousers. The black coat and waistcoat can be combined into a single garment, which is simply a waistcoat with sleeves, known as a bar jacket or court waistcoat. Female advocates also wear a dark suit, but often wear bands attached to a collarette rather than a wing collar.
I must confess that I found the absence of bar jackets in the homeland of barristers a little confusing. As a result, I overlooked the need to order one until I was in the middle of the bar practice course, when I suddenly panicked and realised that I needed one in about two weeks. Conveniently, there was a store that sold them just across the road. That's right... I went to Ludlows.
But before I went there, I looked at their website. And I noticed that they have a whole variety of bar jackets. They have long, short, or vest style, and each of those comes as either "regular" or "premium". When I went into the store, I felt the difference, and the premium is definitely made of nicer fabric.
I also noticed that there is a substantial jump in price when you went from the regular short or medium bar jacket (each being $545) to the premium version (being $900). On the other hand, there is a much smaller jump from the regular vest ($345) to the premium vest ($445).
Now I'm just a humble maths graduate, but those numbers make no sense to me. The vest is effectively the same as the short jacket but without sleeves. If the difference between the regular vest and the premium vest is $100, and the difference between the regular vest and the regular jacket is $200, how can the difference between the premium vest and the premium jacket be $455? That is, the cost of the premium vest more than doubles when you add sleeves. Seems very odd.
Anyway, based on those calculations it seemed clear to me that the premium vest was the best value for money. And I was actually more attracted to it anyway, for essentially the same reasons as my attraction to the superfine wool robe. I live in a hot climate, and if I'm going to have to walk around in black jacket and robe, I'd much rather do it in a sleeveless jacket and a robe made of superfine wool.
So I went across to Ludlows to try on one of the bar vests. But it didn't go exactly as I had expected. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "Hi, I need a bar jacket."
Sales assistant: "Ok, well we have the regular one or the premium one, and we have short or long. Which one would you prefer?"
Me: "Uhhh... I was thinking about the vest."
Her: "The vest? No one gets the vest!"
Me: "Really? Why not?"
Her: "I'm actually not sure. They just don't."
Me: "Well I'm surprised by that. I figure, we're in Sydney. It's hot here. Why wouldn't you choose a vest if that's an option?"
Her: "Yeah I dunno. That's a good point."
Me: "Well I'd like to try one, if that's ok."
Her: "I'm sorry, we don't have any. You'll have to try one of the other ones. But don't worry, it's just the same thing without sleeves. The fit will be the same."
Me: "Ok then. Do you think maybe no one gets them because you don't have them in your store?"
So I had to try on one of the non-vest jackets and then get a made-to-order vest. She also convinced me to order a much looser fit than I would normally buy in a jacket—when the vest arrived, I realised that it was definitely cut for someone who has, let's say, a "rounder" body type than I do. Which is a little unfortunate. I will probably have to go to a tailor in the near future to have it taken in. I guess that's what I get for going to Ludlows.
Item #4: wing collar and neck-bands, or Aussie-style jabot
What's the story behind barrister neckwear? Go on, have a guess.
Yup, it all goes back to the early 1600s, when frilly neck ruffs were very much en vogue. Then around 1640, the neck ruff began to lose favour in broader society. But being barristers, the members of the Bar couldn't let go completely. So they just settled for what became a slightly more boring version, which eventually evolved into two plain white bands tied around the neck. Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on to the equally useless and confusing necktie or bow tie.
Fast forward to the late 1800s, and the fashion is now for shirts to have a starched collar that's attached to the otherwise collarless shirt shirt with metal studs. Of course, a few decades later everyone decided to just sew the collars onto the shirt again and forget about the whole studs thing. Except for barristers (and priests). Barristers kept wearing the detachable starched collars in a "wing collar" shape, with the two white bands around their necks. And that's basically what is worn today.
Except, some innovative and entrepreneurial barristers (three words that are rarely seen together), apparently in Victoria, came up with the bright idea of combining the wing-collar and the bands into one item, adding velcro, and making it so that it could fit over whatever shirt you happened to be wearing. And so the Australian-style barrister jabot was born, available from a Ludlows near you.
Of all the items in my blue barrister bag (see below), the neckwear took me the longest to get right.You see, while the Australian-style jabot definitely gets points for convenience and ease of use, I personally find it quite tacky. So I decided to go with the traditional collarless tunic, starched wing collar attached with brass studs, and bands.
On that basis, when ordering my robe from Stanley Ley, I figured I'd get their version of the collar. For some reason, and much to my later regret, I decided to go with the clip-on bands, rather than the ones you tie yourself. After I realised my error, I went on Moville, and ordered a combined collar-and-tabs thing that is kind of like the Aussie jabot, except it still attaches to the shirt with brass studs.
So both outfits arrive, and the classic wing collar and tabs look great, clip on or no clip on. There's just one small problem: it turns out that the brass stud sticking out of your collar really starts to dig in after a few hours. Who knew? I find that I'm sitting and fiddling with my collar all day, and towards the late afternoon it starts to get slightly difficult to breathe.
So that's it for my detachable collar experiment. But I'm still not going with the Aussie velcro version—because there's another way. It turns out that these days you can buy shirts that have wing collars sewn on! You can wear a wing collar without even needing the brass studs! It's just called a "tuxedo shirt".
So I look online for wing collar tuxedo shirts and I find a few questionable ones, this reasonable looking Michael J Bale one on the Iconic for $149.95, and this beautiful looking Tom Ford one from Mr Porter for £399.79 ($719.88 AUD). After contemplating this for a little while, I decide that I can't really justify spending almost as much on my wing-collar shirt as I spent on my robe and my wig combined. So I go with the one from the Iconic.
And as it turns out, it works pretty well. It's well fitted, much more comfortable than the detachable collar variety, and you can't really tell the difference. The only issue is that it has no front buttons, so you need to bring your own brass studs. But hey, I happen to have a few of those lying around all of a sudden...
Item #5: blue bag/brief bag
Ok, I've tried to figure out what the deal is with the bags, but I've got nothing. The best I can do is either a story about it being a thing that solicitors used to put money into so that barristers didn't have to lower themselves to actually touching the money (which seems very unlikely) or a theory that it once used to be a hood that went over the robe, and over the centuries it morphed into a monogrammed string-pull bag. Riiiight. I guess I lied before when I said the jacket was the only thing I couldn't figure out.
One thing I can tell you about the bag is the colour code: green is for judges, red is for silks, and blue is for junior counsel. So if you're reading this, you probably want the blue one (unless I have much more reach and power than I suspected).
I'm told that in the UK there's a tradition that the pupil master/tutor gives his or her bag to the reader, but that doesn't seem to be a thing in Australia. There also is apparently a tradition where a silk can give a red back to a junior in recognition of particularly good work—but that has to be earned, obviously.
The other thing about the bag, so I'm told, is not only do you use it to carry your robes, it's the only kind of bag you're allowed to carry when you're in your robes. Apparently shoulder-bags and backpacks are frowned on. But wheelie suitcases are acceptable. As are steel trolleys.
Hey, I don't make the rules.
Anyway, the point is that for now you need a blue bag with your initials on it. That means it needs to be made to order. As I have no basis to distinguish between the merits of different blue-bag manufacturers, I again went with Stanley Ley, on the basis that I was ordering everything else from them already and so it seemed easiest. And it worked out fine. Couldn't ask for more from a monogrammed blue string-bag.
Items #6 and #7: dark trousers and non-brown shoes
The last thing you need are pants and shoes. Unlike all of the other items, there is no barrister-specific style for these. Any dark formal pants will do, as will any dark shoes—preferably black, but definitely not brown. Wearing brown shoes is like eating a meat pie while driving a Vespa scooter down Elizabeth St from Queen's Square to Goulburn Street with a backpack on (if you're from the Sydney Bar you'll get the reference). You may as well shred your practicing certificate right now if you're even considering it.
Phew, I must say, this post is about four times longer than I thought it would be. In the unlikely event that anyone is still reading this, thanks for sticking it out, and I hope the experience wasn't too gruelling. Also, share it on social medias—so that all your friends can sympathise with what you just put yourself through by reading to the end (I'm sorry).
* See what I did there?
** Sorry about the cartoon, but for some reason there don't seem to be a lot of royalty-free stock photos of barristers out there. Also I'm pretty sure that guy's a silk, so not 100% relevant to my target audience. My bad.