From the Viewsroom

A change of dress for courts

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on May 14, 2020

Should archaic courtroom attire make a comeback post Covid-19?

Indian lawyers’ tradition of wearing black coats and gowns when in court is about to be abandoned, at least temporarily, due to Covid-19. This is a dramatic change for the legal world which, when it comes to fashion, is highly change-resistant. It was senior counsel Kapil Sibal who queried on Wednesday why the Supreme Court judges he was appearing before via video-conference weren’t wearing the formal attire they usually don. Chief Justice SA Bobde replied they’d been advised the coronavirus could attach itself to their gowns. So now, until further notice, the Supreme Court is relaxing its dress requirements. Male lawyers may appear wearing a white shirt and white neck-band. Similarly, women may wear white sarees or salwar-kameezes and the neck-band.

The legal world’s choice of garb stretches back over centuries. In England, judges began wearing wigs circa 1650. Gowns came in even earlier. But back then, wigs and gowns were part of everyday attire. Soon after Independence, India decided to jettison wigs, which were incredibly uncomfortable in our blistering temperatures. It might seem that this was a no-brainer. But bear in mind, Sri Lankan judges and lawyers still wear wigs on ceremonial occasions. This writer can testify even black coats can be extraordinarily uncomfortable once you exit an airconditioned court. Ex-Union Minister Jairam Ramesh once created a stir by expostulating about gowns and mortar-boards in a university convocation address. Ramesh was perspiring profusely and finally cast off his gown, calling it “medieval.” He added: “I’ve still not been able to figure out why we stick to such barbaric colonial relics.”

It’s true many lawyers like their black coats and gowns, viewing them as distinctive of their trade. Still, Covid-19’s about to change our lifestyles in ways beyond our imaginings. It might not be such a bad outcome if the coats and gowns were left on their hangers and only brought out on ceremonial days. Will Chief Justice Bobde sweep away outdated conventions?

The writer is Editorial Consultant with BusinessLine

Published on May 15, 2020

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