Can you Imagine Sewing a Lawyer’s Robe?

Legal garments in Australia are steeped in history & custom. A lawyer’s robe, at least what we are required to wear in South Australia, is open at the front (no buttons) as we wear a black jacket underneath.  The robe is complex & layered in its design elements.

As for making the robe. Perish the thought!

Legal costuming is a fundamental part of legal history in Australia as it is in the UK & many of the old empire countries.

While ecclesial garmenting is much the  same, legal garments did not grow out of ecclesial robes & vestments.


I spoke earlier about legal regalia in Australia, the wig & gown and so forth here.

Of course it all seems anachronistic, old-fashioned & outdated to some. Others say it dignifies & gives formality to the proceedings.  As far as I can tell, the legal dress custom is here to stay.

Are lawyers living history?   If you want to see a bit of living history and tradition through lawyer’s robes in Australia, hop on over to the criminal courts for a day.  Yep, hang around there & watch history living in day-to-day portrayals.


These 10 images show my gown, purchased about 15 years ago, at Blashki & Sons in Adelaide. You can see why I would not attempt to make one. The gown is intricate in its design and detail with complicated elements of a yoke joined by the main gown and winged sleeves.  The gown is layered and gathered and dripping with those pesky, fussy, cartridge pleats. The gown itself puffs and billows. There are buttons, cuffs, hidden pockets, padding and so forth Who wants to design and sew this? I’m a sewer not a seamstress.





The gown requires a lot of fabric making it quite heavy.

I can sew & once made my own clothes, but me thinks this a daunting task to try to create the complex design elements.




Inside of gown on right front looking into right sleeve opening that’s been trimmed out to neaten the joins.



Sleeve pleats and buttons



Pleating at top of back where it meets the rear yoke under the square edged flap.



Inside rear yoke on left side. Left sleeve meeting left shoulder there.  The square edged flap trims out the joins underneath where back and sleeve meet the yoke.  See directly image above.



Front of left sleeve.



Top of sleeve where meets shoulder and shows the detailed cartridge pleating.




The outside front/bottom edges of the sleeves are gathered, pulled up & shaped & embellished with pleats, gathers & buttons.  It’s that gathering or pulling up at the font that allows for the longer un-gathered rear of the sleeves to drape longer and appear pointed when the gown is worn.  Obviously the sleeves have to be voluminous for the design to work.


The finished gown is ample & flowing & rich in amount & quality of thick black fabric.   I can see that without that richness, the design & its detail, the overall look would not work.


Imagine the painstaking requirements of patience & detail in the sewing of the fussy elements & attaching them to the yoke especially the main gathered pieces?  My eyes glaze over thinking about it.  I feel like my fingers would be blotchy & bleeding from all the needle pricks.


Can you imagine drafting a pattern for this gown? Constructing the pointy wing type sleeves gushing & flowing with all those gathers & cartridge pleats?  Catering for the amount of fabric required?  One could become airborne swanning around in all that flowing fabric!


But wait, you’ll see I found some base patterns further on.


As I say, wearing legal regalia today is essentially wearing a living piece of legal history, a tradition of legal history in action in the 21st century

I realise that designs of legal gowns may vary from country to country & region to region but the ones we wear are basically the same or very similar in style & construction to my gown, the one you see here.


Another thing.  There’s a thin strip of fabric trailing down the front of the gown & the remainder of a ‘pocket ‘ or a small piece of fabric dangling on the back.  I believe that could be the money bag.  Say what?

Money bag.  The purpose of the ‘money bag’ is not entirely clear. Some say that, at one point, the gentlemanly barrister would not lower himself to ask clients for money, but would turn his back and pull on the strap to jingle the bag, ‘reminding’ the client that payment was due. However, English wigmakers Ede and Ravenscroft, creators and sellers of court dress since the seventeenth century, argue that the ‘money bag’ is in fact the remains of either an early monastic hood or a traditional hood worn during a period of mourning. Wigs and Robes


Here’s a few other examples of cartridge pleating in gowns & making them and historical garment making in general.



Sewing to Distraction



Stiffening the pleats via Snape Construction


Time Stitch – Cartridge Pleating


Civic and Municipal Robes


An academic robe? Located this pattern for a gown suitable for an academic robe which could be adjusted as a barristers robe.

For a site brim full of designs and ideas on costuming check out The Costumers Manifesto. The Facebook page is worth a visit also.

A fabulously informative blog on historical garment making including complex design elements in legal gowns is Fondness for Frocks.



Fondness for Frocks – Ede and Ravenscroft




Cartridge Pleating – Fondness for Frocks


The finished Mayor’s robe


On the Mayor’s robes 128 cm worth of cloth is pleated into 32cm and then sewn to the yoke. I have been really excited to learn how to cartridge pleat because when you look at historic garments they so often have cartridge pleats on the waistline and so it is a valuable skill to learn.

Graham taught us that cartridge pleats are made by doing rows of running stitches that are an equal distance apart. When these are gathered you tie off the ends so they are tightly pleated. To make the pleats thicker we could experiment with wadding to bulk up the pleats.
To attach to the yoke you catch the edge of each pleat to he design line of the yoke. Each pleat will need 2 stitches to make it secure.

We calculated that 128cm of back fabric needs to be pleated onto 32cm of yoke. 128/32= 4. Therefore for every 1cm on the yoke we need to fit 4cm pleated in the back.




Intricate pleating and gathering


Fondness for Frocks

The gathering and pleating used to make the cartridge pleat in historic garments is a fundamental design feature in the barristers robe. Looks like a type of smocking.




Constructing Toile – Fondness for Frocks

Here’s Fondness for Frocks’ Bibliography listing ongoing research into the robes and sources used throughout the project. Updated periodically.



More here on historical costuming, ideas and inspiration here.

A companion to History of Academical Dress in Europe until the End of the 18th century by Hargreaves-Mawdsley, W. N. is his (1963) book A History of Legal Dress in Europe until the end of the 18th century Oxford: Clarendon Press. It covers subjects like: Judges — Clothing Lawyers — Clothing Lawyers — Costume Judges — Costume Lawyers — Clothing — Europe — History.


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