Why Do Justices Wear Black Robes?

The robes Supreme Court justices wear weren't always black. In fact, some were a variety of different colors.

U.S. Supreme Court justices

You probably remember learning about the Supreme Court in school and seeing pictures of famous Supreme Court justices like Sandra Day O’Connor and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Supreme Court rulings have changed the course of history including when same-sex marriage became legal. But how well do you know your Supreme Court history? Alongside knowing why the Supreme Court has nine justices, have you ever wondered why Supreme Court justices wear black robes?

The history of why Supreme Court justices wear robes

First of all, why do Supreme Court justices wear robes as opposed to suits and ties? “We do not know the exact reasons why the Supreme Court justices decided to don robes, but it is most likely due to the tradition of having judges wear robes that was passed down for centuries in many European countries, most notably England,” Clare Cushman, Director of Publications at the Supreme Court Historical Society, tells Reader’s Digest. “There is no evidence that the Justices wore robes at their initial sitting in 1790, but they did decide to continue this tradition and first wore robes at their February 1792 sitting.  Generally, robes are considered to give court proceedings a solemnity for the serious nature of the work.” Serving on the Supreme Court is a great achievement and honor. Here’s why Supreme Court justices serve for life.

Vibrant robes

It might surprise you to note that the robes Supreme Court justices wear weren’t always black. In fact, some were a variety of different colors. “From 1792 to about 1800, the Court wore a black robe with red and white elements on the sleeves and down the front of the robe,” Cushman says. You can an example of this at the National Gallery of Art, which has an oil on canvas portrait of John Jay by artist Gilbert Stuart.

The black robe

So why did U.S. Supreme Court justices decide on black robes? “There is no specific reason—at some point, the Court changed from the more colorful robes to all black, sometime around 1800 to 1801,” says Cushman. “Eventually, this tradition spread to other courts and most federal judges adopted the all-black robe in the 1880s.” Cushman adds that the Court’s tradition generally does come from English traditions, but other European nations like France also wore robes.

Black robes in modern times

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the Supreme Court and shared her thoughts about wearing black robes with Smithsonian Magazine:

My fondest thoughts about my robe have to do with the tradition at the Supreme Court for putting it on. On argument days, a buzzer sounds about five minutes before the oral argument starts. The justices go to the robing room—the court’s version of a locker room. Each justice has a locker; attendants help the justices fasten their robes. Then the justices, without fail, engage in a wonderful custom. Each justice shakes the hand of every other justice before walking into the courtroom—an important reminder that, despite the justices’ occasional differences in opinion, the court is a place of collegiality and common purpose.

It goes to show that history is continuously being made.


Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com