Many years ago a "consultant" visited my workplace. Outside the world of medicine, "consultant" is generally a fancy word for computer salesman. During the course of our conversation, he used the acronym WYZIWYG ("what you see is what you get"). At that moment I noticed the join. He was wearing a toupee. In my imagination the toupee then started spinning round on his head like a joke bow tie. Composure was difficult. I felt like Basil Fawlty, tongue-tied on realising that he was about to introduce a Mr Twychin to somebody with a facial tic.
I am usually hopeless at spotting wigs. Many times I have commented on somebody's hair only to be laughed at: "What? You didn't know it was a wig?" It is most unfortunate that one of my rare occasions of rug-identification should coincide with the use of that acronym.
Wigs are thought of as rather ridiculous, yet in the courtroom they are a symbol of dignity. I approve of them. Paradoxically they are egalitarian rather than elitist. Last year when I did jury service, one of the barristers was an experienced white man in his early sixties, and the other was a young black woman in her twenties. The wigs, together with the robes, masked any differences between them, so that only the office counted.
Harry Mount in The Spectator disagrees:
We don’t take stagecoaches to Basingstoke any more ... Why, then, do lawyers persist in keeping up another ludicrous, outdated 18th-century practice — wearing wigs?
At least the first wig-wearers in 1660 — falling for the French wig craze that Charles II brought back from exile in France — had the sense to shave their heads before putting their wigs on. What’s the point of having two layers of hair on your head?
Even in the 1660s they were worried about hygiene, and quite rightly so. Pepys got in a terrible panic when he tried on his first wig in 1665 after having his head shaved:
Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection; that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.
Two years later, Pepys got a bad infestation of nits in his wig.
Despite these design faults, barristers took up the craze in the 1680s. The fashion lasted for about a century among more go-ahead people. It started to die out towards the end of the 18th century, particularly when, in 1795, the government levied a tax on wig and hair powder of one guinea per year. By 1800 the wig was dead, except among a few crazy old fogeys with a pathological affection for the past — barristers. Ever since, barristers have run a busy market in inventing after-the-fact rationalisations for their fogeyism.
If barristers do hold on to their wigs — and I bet Lord Phillips rules that they do — they should acknowledge the real reason for their affection: the conviction that the more outdated something is, the grander it becomes.
So what? Isn't that the point?