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British Parliament Is Losing its Wigs

They’re itchy, formal—and part of centuries of tradition

Clerks (right) will no longer have to wear their distinctive wigs in the House of Commons. (UK Parliament)
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Picture, if you will, the UK House of Commons. Green benches. Carved wood. Clerks in wigs and long gowns. That’s been the look of the chamber for years—but not for much longer. As the BBC reports, in a break with tradition, wigs are on their way out.

The decision to do away with the hairpieces is that of John Bercow, who has served as Speaker of the House of Commons since 2009. He says that it will make the chamber seem “marginally less stuffy” and that the decision represents the sentiments of the clerks.

The three clerks serve an important role in the House of Commons. The impartial public servants sit at a table in the center of the chamber and record all of the decisions. But their roles goes deeper than that. Not only do they advise the entire house on constitutional matters and issues of conduct, but they actually hold all of the property of the House of Commons—including, as the UK Parliament’s website points out, the Big Ben bell.

With all that responsibility comes a strict dress code. A 2006 fact sheet calls them “bewigged” and states that they wear a “bob wig and black silk gown, with a black cloth dress coat and waistcoat, black cloth trousers, white shirt and white bow tie with a wing collar.” (Bercow also intends to do away with the latter two accessories.)

The bob wig is a British tradition going back at least three centuries. As the Chicago Tribune’s Tom Hundley notes, the wig was simply in style beginning in the 1680s and it became a tradition after that. The bob wig is a kind of intermediate wig—more casual than a full ceremonial getup, but staid and serious enough to command attention. It's made of horsehair and can cost a pretty penny, but provided past clerks with conveniently stylish lice protection.

Bob wigs were abandoned by British barristers and judges in civil cases in 2007, to the despair of wigmakers and the confusion of the British public, many of whom felt that wigs, in Hundley’s words, lent “an air of dignity and solemnity to legal proceedings” and put an emphasis on institutions instead of individuals.

Bercow, who abandoned formal Speaker of the House of Commons regalia in favor of a business suit long ago, is known for eschewing tradition. But not everyone is amused. The Telegraph’s Steven Swinford reports that members of parliament have denounced the plan, accusing Bercow of a modernizing agenda, comparing the decision to an inappropriate executive order, and saying that complaints that the wigs are "itchy" aren't sufficient, as the wigs have “been itchy for centuries.”

But the Clerk of the House of Commons, David Natzler, agrees with Bercow. He says that the majority of clerks find them to be a distraction and that “the image they convey…is of quaintness and of a chilling and antique formality.” Besides, the House of Commons’ many traditions, from the “dragging” of a new speaker to his seat to bills being read three times, will probably withstand a new dress code.

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