Under the counter with Lindsay Calder

Once a year, about 500 barristers around the age of 40 start to get very edgy. They are all waiting for a brown envelope, which, depending on its bulk, will determine whether or not they will be able to dress up in silk tights, long wigs and effeminate shoes. They are not waiting for their copy of Transvestite Monthly (well, a few may be) but for a package from the Lord Chancellor's Department, telling them whether or not they are to "take silk". If it's a thin envelope the message is not good, ie try again next year; but a big thick one means they can put the letters QC for Queen's Counsel after their name. This year 68 received the nod.

As soon as the news hits each QC's chambers, it's as if a wedding has been announced in the family - the champagne corks start popping. But for a barrister who had been so used to asking for his costs at the end of a case, and getting them, taking silk gives costs and cases a whole new meaning: the enormous cost of buying the QC regalia, and the endless cases of champagne to celebrate the new appointment.

One of the first tasks is to go along to Ede and Ravenscroft on Chancery Lane to get measured up for the ceremonial gear - gear that does not suit everyone, and depending on your stature makes you look like Louis XIV, Buttons or an extra from Blackadder. I know both a Louis XIV and a Buttons - men in tights who, at their age, really shouldn't show their knees. Going from toe to top, the new QC will need to purchase a pair of patent buckled shoes, pounds 175; white tights (suitably thick to cover up middle-aged veins) pounds 19; black silk knee breeches, pounds 36 to hire, as they are worn only once for the ceremony, but apparently a few people do buy them at pounds 330 a pair - a little extracurricular dressing up at Madame Jo-Jo's, perhaps. The lace stock and cuffs, for that stuffed turkey look, are pounds 69 a set, and then the tailcoat and waistcoat, which are then worn in court, cost pounds 150 for the two, and are worn under the QC gown, which comes in a silk and wool mix for pounds 510, or - for the flash QC- in Ottoman silk, price pounds 1,030 - they will be hoping for plenty of juicy leading cases to get value for money out of that. That lot is topped off with a full-bottomed wig (worn for the ceremony only) to hire for pounds 80, or, if you really must have one for the dressing-up box, pounds 1,650.

Female QCs have the option of wearing a black skirt for the ceremony, but according to Ede and Ravenscroft, most women opt for breeches these days. Cherie Booth wore breeches when she was appointed - going for the principal boy touch rather than the first lady look. She would not have purchased a pair of patent Bobby Shaftoe shoes from Ede and Ravenscroft, but would have worn her own patent court shoes (from her Imelda-esque collection) and stuck on a pair of buckles for the day.

However, the buck doesn't stop there. Just when the new QC thinks pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 is enough retail therapy to be going on with, there's the limo to transport him to the House of Lords on Ceremony Day, a photographer for photos of himself looking ridiculous and the bill for his QC party, which is not much change out of pounds 5,000. So, the next time you are complaining about how much lawyers charge, just remember, they have to. They've got to save up for silk.

Ede and Ravenscroft Ltd, 93 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1DU, 0171 405 3906

Applications to take silk open on Tuesday, 16 September, 1997 and close on Monday 13 October. Barristers applying should be of a minimum of 10 years call, and are not usually under the age of 40. Applications are sent to Judicial Appointments One, Second Floor, Selbourne House, 54-60 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QW.


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