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The Much Talked About Santa Robes

The ceremonial robes worn by our dear judges of the Supreme Court, commonly known as the “Santa Robes”, trace their origins to the 14th Century England. Throughout the years, a gradual separation occurred between the roles of the judge [judiciary] and the sergeant-at-laws [barristers], roles formerly combined into one. That separation of roles also meant a differentiation in the costumes at the King’s court. Hence, the robe reserved for the judges was lined with miniver (white fur), while the sergeant-at-laws’ was lined with lamb.

The ceremonial robes are still worn today by the English judges of the Queen’s bench for ceremonies (called Red letter days). The only noticeable difference between the 14th Century attire and the one worn today by our Justices of the Canadian Supreme Court is the shape of the robe. Abandoned throughout the 1600s, the mantle used to be attached to the left-hand side at shoulder height, thus covering the right arm. A decree of 1635 officially proclaimed the dress code calendar of the “Judges” of Westminster. Moving forward, the latter had to wear their Robes faced with white furs of Miniver from “Simon and Jude’s day” and continue until Ascension Day. Unsurprisingly, in those days, the clergy played a bigger part in public institutions; therefore, fashion was often aligned with the Christian calendar.

The Santa Robes have a very strong historical significance. They embody continuity, a principle upon which common law is founded and from which derives its legitimacy. The first ceremonial robes arrived in Canada just in time for the first sitting of the Supreme Court of Canada, scheduled on Monday, January 17, 1876. Ironically, on that day, the first sitting was adjourned immediately as there was no case before the bench. The judges were wearing the creation of the London tailor Ede & Sons (Advocate), whose banner is still floating in the streets of the City to this day. Many former British colonies adopted the same court attire and kept it after the dismantling of the Empire. 

The last ceremonial robe made for our Supreme Court judges goes back to the 1990’s. It was made by an Italian immigrant named Giovanna who worked at “Imperial Robes”, a tailor based out in Toronto, who is still in business today. Nowadays, when a new judge is nominated, alterations are made to the robe, adjusted to his or her shape. People who know about dressmaking will tell you that there is only a maximum number of alterations a piece of clothing can be subjected to. Up to a certain point, the fur trimming will have to be reconsidered. Perhaps the recent announcement from Queen Elizabeth II that she will no longer wear fur will have some influence over the future of our judges’ robes – maybe force them to use another material.

Such a drastic substitution would most likely mark a departure from Canada’s past as a British colony essentially based on fur trade. It would mark a new era for the Canadian society, moving forward and progressing with higher regards for animals and environmental sustainability. Should those ceremonial robes – which are only worn three times a year and tend to create a brief internet buzz around Christmas time because of their Santa Claus-looking shape- change? It is a part of our Canadian history that should be respected with humility: a part of a strong historical background that should be celebrated.

Par Ali Sacha Rezaian

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