Bringing Down African Big Wigs: The High Cost of Court Dress

8 Min Read

October 3, 2012 By Sitinga Kachipande

During the procession of judges in Malawi and many commonwealth countries, a familiar scene includes judges in ‘traditional’ robe and wig. The status of the judicial employee is reflected through the style of the robe as well as the elaborate, white, silky headdress made from horse hair – the periwig. These ill-fitting, itchy wigs are manufactured by two large British oligopolies and exported to African countries. The cost of these wigs ranges between $1,000 – $6,000 USD per wig, rendering them a costly drain on foreign exchange. A hefty price tag that is ludicrous for an article of clothing largely symbolic that does not improve the quality of work of the individual. In most cases, the silky long white wigs are ill suited as they bear little resemblance to Black African hair textures. They are a symbol of a colonial legacy and our inability to “restructure our colonial institutions to reflect our culture and needs”. Yet, several years after independence, commonwealth nations continue to cling on to this garb signaling continued psychological and economic attachment to the Britain.

The periwig (or wig) is a colonial tradition inherited together with the British colonial judicial institution.  The mens’ wigs began as a fashion trend for the wealthy and soon became a formal as part several professions. This fashion trend still continues in the judicial system in several countries.

Aesthetically, the wigs can problematic for Africans. The wigs come in light yellow, blonde, grey, or white. Colors that do not always reflect the natural hair color of Black Africans. They are also made from silky straight horsehair which was intended to resemble the texture of the hair of White Britons. None of them come in kinky or afro hair that would closely resemble Black African hair texture.  When it comes to nation-building, they are problematic for nations that are trying to gain a national identity in a post-colonial era where the standards of beauty are created outside of the former colonies. Although some of our female judges may be able to get away with this look (color and texture) that is popularized by the likes of Black celebrities like Beyonce, it has its contradictions. In societies that claim that being gay is “un-African”, many have no qualms over Black African men of judicial authority wearing blonde straight-haired wigs! This shows us that clothes (and their meaning) are a social constructs whose meaning is determined by society and can easily be transformed. In simple terms socially, the wigs make a mockery of the judicial system in terms of ideology, “tradition”, aesthetics and independence. In physical terms, they are itchy, heavy, uncomfortable and unfavorable for much of Africa’s tropical climates.

The wigs are also unfavorable for African government budgets. This year, the Ugandan government faced financial difficulties in financing new wigs. The price tag for Uganda to procure the ceremonial wigs for 76 justices of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Courts, was a whopping sh1b; each wig coming with a price tag of roughly sh13.5m ($6479.2USD or £4,000 ). Amidst financial constraints, members the Ugandan government and judicial system saw this wardrobe faux pas as “protocol embarrassment” because judges had to attend ceremonies “without being recognized” – in true British fashion. The only problem though is that they are not British and there is no need to be embarrassed over a tradition that mimics the British judicial system with little utility. Simply stated, they are a waste of tax-payers money. During challenging financial times, governments should be trying to implement austerity measures and cut funding for unnecessary expenses. Rather than try to find funding for wigs, efforts will be best served in changing the requirement for wigs as a status symbol in their judicial systems.

The newly independent British American colonies decided to ditch this tradition after their independence because they wanted their judicial system to signal the ideology of their new nation and new judicial system. Likewise, Canadians ceased to wear these outfits because they needed a psychological separation from Britain and to reinforce their independence. Both of these former colonies adapted. They kept what was practical and what reflected their current needs. Finally, the British decided to adapt their own 300-year tradition  in 2008, for a more modern judicial outfit. They got rid of the wig, and now indicate status by changing the color of the bands on the robes which is less costly.  They now wear gold or red bands with their velvet lined cuffs to indicate judicial status. The wigs will only be used in criminal cases.

There is a need for Africans to follow in this pattern and ditch the wigs. Countries could still use the robes but incorporate their own ideologies and cultures to create attire that blends colonial and traditional institutions. Last year Kenya adapted this requirement. Kenyan judges discarded their wigs and are no longer to be referred to as “my lord” or “my lady”.  They decided to keep the robe but opted for the creation of a lighter version that is more suitable to the warm Kenyan weather. A country like Ghana could use kente cloth designs (that have traditionally been used to symbolize status) as a part of their judicial robes. This would be a fine example of colonial institutions using traditional forms and symbols (kente cloth, chitenge design, or other symbols) to indicate status. This would also serve to encourage and sustain locally sourced products as opposed to foreign ones.

Cultures, societies, traditions and fashions trends are not static. All countries change and adapt based on the current needs of the nation. It is time for African nations to abandon the British tradition of wig wearing and adapt to the current needs of African nations. There is simply no justification for the continual burden that this costly fashion trend presents to countries with tight budgets. The wigs serve as a daily reminder of our failure to reform our inherited institutions and truly transform our societies. This includes ensuring social, judicial and economic justice within the legal institutions. It is small steps like this that reflect fiscal responsibility and governments interested in continual nation-building.

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