The English judiciary has long been regarded as a bastion of conservative mores and sartorial continuity. So when, 10 months ago, former designer of the year Betty Jackson ripped up 300 years of tradition by introducing a new robe for some of England's most trenchant legal minds, her chutzpah raised eyebrows far beyond the High Court.
Now the judges have delivered their first formal appraisal of the gowns they were instructed to adopt – and they are far from happy.
A survey has found that High Court judges are "considerably annoyed" about having the new robes "foisted" on them, and reveals "strong support" for abandoning the new robes – although concerns that this would mean negative publicity will probably put a stop to that.
The new robes, unveiled last May as part of a package of measures to simplify court working dress, immediately drew scornful comments.
One critic derided them as akin to the vestments of "a Catholic bishop", while another said it looked like "a cross between a Star Trek costume and a fascist stormtrooper's uniform".
The robes identify seniority, with heads of division and Court of Appeal judges wearing gowns with gold bands, High Court judges wearing red bands, and district judges to be dressed in gowns with blue bands at the neck. The new robes were first worn officially in October as judges were instructed to abandon their horsehair wigs, wing collars, and traditional garb when sitting in civil and family proceedings.
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, then Lord Chief Justice, modelled a gown in May and claimed he was pleased with the new look. "I've not got 100 per cent support, but I have the majority," he said. "I hope that after wearing the new gown for a while everyone will be happy."
Lord Phillips is now the senior law lord in the House of Lords and so does not have to wear the robes.
His colleagues in the judiciary, according to the survey released yesterday, do not share his enthusiasm for updating their dress. Of 104 High Court judges surveyed, 40 voted for abandoning the new robes, while 32 favoured retention, with or without modification. Others failed to reply.
The survey concluded that there is "considerable annoyance over the way in which the change was foisted on the High Court Bench," and "a determination that there should be no similar situation in future without proper and fully informed consultation and consideration." And yet, wary of reducing their estimation in the eyes of the public, many judges said they felt that "an attempt to reverse the widely publicised decision on robes would be damaging to the judiciary".
The High Court Judges Association committee has now said it will propose "that no further step should be taken to recommend abolition, and that the new robe should be accepted." Jackson, who acquired a glowing reputation for her "funky British clothes for aspiring funky British girls", was unavailable for comment yesterday. "Strong representations" will now be made to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and heads of division at the Royal Courts of Justice to address some of the judges' concerns.
Among the nuisances reported by judges were difficulties in accessing pockets, and poppers at the neck, which tend to become unfastened irritatingly often, they said.