In a modest move towards the modernisation of the Lords, peers decided by 145 to 115 in a free vote to allow Lord Irvine of Lairg to wear plain black trousers and shoes, except on ceremonial occasions.
He said he faced 13 or 14 hours at a time wearing the traditional costume during the second reading and report stages of Bills. "The wig weighs an absolute ton. It is very uncomfortable," he said.
However, speaking during a lively debate, Earl Ferrers, a former Conservative deputy leader of the Lords, dismissed it as "another example of the Government salami-slicing away at tradition" and a "retrograde step".
"The office of Lord Chancellor is one of the highest in the land, and the ceremonial which goes with that office and the uniform that attaches to that office is very important. In my view any attempt to dress down is wrong, nor do I think it is incumbent on whoever happens to be the holder at any time of this prestigious office to say, 'I don't really like this uniform'."
He said one could imagine Guardsmen suggesting they do away with their "silly old bearskins" because they were out of date. Uniforms were a "symbol of what has gone before and on which the present is built", he added. Referring to the controversial pounds 60,000 refurbishment of Lord Irvine's official apartments at West-minster, Lord Ferrers said: "It would seem curious, for one who is so punctilious that his apartment correctly reflects history, that the same critical analysis should not apply to the Lord Chancellor's dress as well."
Defending the Lord Chancellor's request, Lord Strabolgi, a Labour peer, said times had moved on and reminded peers that Lords used to wear frock coats and top hats at the beginning of the century.
Peers also agreed that the Lord Chancellor should be able to speak from the Government front bench in his role as a minister without his wig and gown as he already does on committee stages of government Bills. He will continue to sit on the Woolsack for question time or the formal stages of Bills.