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Why Do Judges Wear Black Robes?

United States Supreme Court group portrait circa 1925
Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Not all judges around the world don black robes, but that is the color of choice in the United States. Black, red, or any other color—why do judges wear robes and what’s the significance of their colors?

The History of the Judicial Robe

Judges in England began wearing robes in the 1300s. According to the same source, those judges changed their robes by season, somewhat, by wearing green in the winter and violet in the summer. They also had scarlet robes to wear on special occasions, meaning a British judge had to own at least three robes, just to have one of each color. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the judges in the United States opted to stick with a solid black robe.

Black robes became the norm in the 1600s, and are the modern choice in the United States. As for Europe, some say the black robes gained popularity after the death of Queen Mary II, as they were worn to mourn her passing for years following. However, some of the other articles linked here indicate that they were wearing black years before her death.

Why Black?

Even those who have donned the black robes don’t know exactly where the tradition started. An article by Sandra Day O’Connor, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, states that it’s the tradition of wearing the black robes that keeps judges doing it. In fact, it seems that no rules exist as to what judges and justices must wear when they’re on the bench, in the United States, anyway. They seem to prefer the simple black robe, which is sometimes made of silk (though not always).

In the late 1700s, the very first chief justice, John Jay, is seen wearing a black, red, and white robe in portraits. It was in 1801 when Chief Justice John Marshall donned the all-black robe as a simplistic look, and the single dark color stuck.

The color black has its own meanings, which may have something to do with it being the choice for robes worn by judges. It’s a powerful color, and judges do have a lot of power when it comes to determining the futures of people who face them. Black is calming and grounding, which could help keep things from getting crazy in the courtroom (at least to some extent). It’s also a sophisticated color and works well for the stoic position of a judge.

Keeping the Tradition Alive

Judges who chose to wear robes (when it’s an option) wear them because it reminds them of the dignity their position holds. The traditional look of the black robe in the courtroom is one of decorum, and most judges enjoy sticking with that form of taste and etiquette.

Would you feel different facing a judge if they were in street clothes? A more casual look would certainly take away some of the power that a presiding judge has over the room. The black robe makes them stand out, gives them a look of authority, and is a uniform that people have gotten used to.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »