The Permanent Exhibition of Legal and Judicial Costume at the Royal Courts of Justice

Above: The Royal Courts of Justice © Copyright Judiciary 2020

The Permanent Exhibition of Legal and Judicial Costume is housed in the Royal Courts of Justice, on the Strand in the centre of London's legal quarter. The collection of costume and ephemera numbers approximately 300 items, some dating as far back as the 17th century, making it the largest and most comprehensive collection of its type in the UK. Items from the collection are displayed across three sections of the majestic building that was designed by George Edmund Street and officially opened by Queen Victoria in December 1882.

The exhibition was opened in 1974 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, with the objective of compiling a record of every surviving form of historic judicial and legal costume. The collection now includes examples of judicial robes from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Kazakhstan and Spain.

The Royal Courts building is among the largest courts in Europe with over 1,000 rooms, 80 court rooms and 3.5 miles of corridors! Maps of the building are available for visitors from the help desk at the entrance to the Royal Courts. When you enter the Royal Courts through the security check, the oldest part of the exhibition is situated on the right of the impressive main hall. Known as The Strand Exhibition, the three cases display a selection of European legal robes and the uniform of the Tipstaff (an ancient executive officer of the courts).

The Strand Exhibition
PHOTOGRAPH BY Exhibition of the History of Legal Robes and Costumes

?The Main Exhibition (or Carey Street site) is located at the far end of the building from the Strand entrance. Before you ascend the steps in your left to the second floor, make sure to turn back and look at the column that the architect George Edmund Street purposely left incomplete, so that his creation would fall short of the perfection of God. This area of the exhibition features some of the oldest pieces in the collection, including the Full Court Dress of Judges & Counsel which was made by the robe makers, Adam Ede, for Sir John Frederick Pollock in c. 1844. The Main Exhibition also has many fantastic examples of legal accessories, such as robe bags and the black and gold japanned tin boxes that robemakers supply to hold robes and wigs. Also on display are different versions of the iconic horsehair wigs, which many Barristers and Judges usually purchase second hand, as traditionally the older a wig looks the more experienced the legal professional.

Main Exhibition
PHOTOGRAPH BY Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd.

The Permanent Exhibition also has a display in two cases to commemorate the centenary year of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which allowed women to become Solicitors, Barristers, Magistrates and Jurors for the first time. Red robes and a black c. 1960s evening dress, belonging to the first female High Court judge in England, Mrs Justice Lane, are on display. Also featured are treasures belonging to the current Lady Justices and Mrs Justices of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, including summer robes certificates, trophies and wigs.

100 Years of Women in Law Display
PHOTOGRAPH BY Victoria Haddock

There is a dedicated exhibition space, connected to the left of the Main Exhibition, displaying robes that belonged to the Rt Hon Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone KG CH (formerly Quintin McGarel Hogg QC), who served as Lord Chancellor twice, during the 1970s and 1980s. Lord Hailsham’s magnificent State Robe of the Lord Chancellor is made of black Damask and gold thread, and was originally made for and worn by his father. The robe would be worn on state occasions and is believed to date back in its present form to the seventeenth century.

Lord Hailsham's State Robes
PHOTOGRAPH BY Victoria Haddock

The collection is run as a charity (charity number: 313053) and is dependent on donations to help to maintain and preserve the items. The Permanent Exhibition is open to the public from 10am - 4:30pm, Monday to Friday, and there is no admission charge to enter the Royal Courts. Tours of the exhibition can be arranged via the Legal Costume Collection’s website: https://www.rcjlegalcostume.co.uk/

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Victoria Haddock

Victoria Haddock graduated with a BA (Honours) History degree from the Open University in 2016, before undertaking a Masters degree in the History of Design and Material Culture from the University of Brighton, graduating with a Merit in 2019. Victoria’s dissertation focused on the topic of fashion tie-ins inspired by film costumes during the 1930s. She currently works as a Freelance Collections Care Curator for Zenzie Tinker Conservation, working on the Royal Courts of Justice Legal Dress Collection, and has previously worked for the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, and the National Trust’s Killerton House. Victoria has also been volunteering with the Costume/Textile collections at Killerton and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum for a number of years.