The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, today announced that the Commons’ clerks will no longer wear horsehair wigs and court dress while sitting at the table. They will, however, keep their black gowns, and male clerks will continue to wear white bow ties (female clerks will wear neck bands). Despite protests from MPs, the Speaker stuck to his guns, claiming that the clerks themselves favored the choice and that it would make the Commons “marginally less stuffy.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the issue of court dress in the United Kingdom. While the casual observer might be tempted to assume that it’s something that’s been around since time immemorial, most of its components are actually comparatively recent. The horsehair wigs and bar jacket, for example, only came about in the eighteenth century. I find it interesting that clothing from this one period has become fossilized.
This change has led to protests from the Conservative benches, with Sir Gerald Howarth and Jacob Rees-Mogg voicing their objections. But according to the Clerk of the House of Commons, few table clerks wear court dress as it is. It’s expensive (£4,000 a suit), and the Commons authorities have been reluctant to spend that kind of money each time a new clerk is appointed.
While I personally think that wigs and court dress add gravitas to the House, I understand the rationale for the change. In an age of austerity, it’s hard to justify spending thousands of pounds to equip support staff in horsehair wigs and court dress. And unlike Bercow’s changes to the Speaker’s outfit, the clerks’ outfit will maintain a high degree of visual continuity. The missing wigs will obviously be noticeable, but the gowns will help obscure the differences between a bar jacket and a regular suit jacket, and clerks will continue to wear the traditional neckwear. Plus, the old-style attire will continued to be worn on formal occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament.
Balancing tradition with modernity is always a challenge, but in this case, I think they got it right.