Why do barrister gowns look so weird from the back?

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By Katie King on

Some think it’s so money can be dropped inside

A former Court of Appeal judge has addressed a question we’ve long wanted answered: why do barristers’ gowns look so weird from behind?

As if wearing a horsehair wig and speaking in Latin isn’t silly enough, since the 1600s advocates have donned a strange appendage on the back of their left shoulder. It’s pretty difficult to describe, but this image from legal outfitters Stanley Ley shows what we’re talking about:

The back of a barrister’s gown. Image via Stanley Ley

We know what you’re all thinking: WTF is that? Thankfully, judge turned blogger Sir Henry Brooke has dedicated an entire article to the question.

One theory, he writes, is that this gown quirk harks back to a time where it was used as a convenient purse or bag. Historically, barristers did not receive explicit payment for their advocacy — their fees were ‘honoraria’ — so clients could slip cash into the gown fold.

A nice theory, but one Brooke dismisses like he’s on an episode of MythBusters.

Instead, he claims the piece of fabric is a customary part of mourning dress. Quoting legal historian and Cambridge professor John Baker, the blog reads:

The little black appendage now worn by barristers over the left shoulder is not of medieval origin as some have supposed. It was never a purse. It is the remnant of a mourning hood assumed on the death of Charles II in 1685.

Who knew?

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