The chic gowns SCOTUS has rocked since its birth in 1791 are somewhere between a graduation robe and a garbage bag poncho, but they’re worn with a certain authority that only the world's most sophisticated constitutional interpreters can pull off. But why the robe design choice? Why the black?
There's more than one story behind the Supreme Court's sophisticated Snuggies, but most accounts agree that the trend sprouts from our ancestors in England. In that same 18th century era, America's colonizers also brought powdered wigs to accompany the black robes, but those were quickly abandoned after the Revolution. Thank goodness Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers had some Queer Eye for the Straight Guy wits to them and deported those things back to Europe!
Today, the black robe serves as a normalizing tool across the nation. Though there are some slight exceptions for female judges who accent their traditional garb with frilly white cloth accessories, for judges in Maryland who wear red robes, or for Georgia judges whose robes are grey, black is the color of the American judge by and large. In other former British colonies like Jamaica, Uganda, and Zambia, judges wear red robes. And in the UK today, judges wear all sorts of silly garments along with their robes to suggest difference in status. But in most other countries, such as South American nations, judges don't wear robes at all. Judges from these non ex-British Empire states typically reserve themselves to suits. So really, the robe is more of a British monarchical badge than anything else.
The United States does not require any particular dress code in its courts, but judges have seen the uniformity of their clothing choices as a dehumanizing factor in the courtroom. That's not to say, however, that all robes are exactly the same.
Today, judicial robes in the United States can cost as much as $400, often ordered online or from catalogues. The most expensive — "the Gucci of robes," as Judge ShawnDya L. Simpson of Manhattan calls them — are made from high-end polyester and are generally reserved for special occasions like weddings.
Yep, these fashion moguls really know what’s in this season in the judicial catalog. And lucky for them, what's in this season will also be the mode next season, and probably the season after that: black.