White Coats / Black Robes

By Jeanne E. Murphy posted 09-26-2017 09:07


Why do doctors wear white coats and judges wear black robes? It seems the opposite should be true. Doctors, who historically have gotten very messy during the practice of their profession, would be well served by black coats that hide all sins whereas judges, who rarely get even a smudge on their sleeve during the day, could sport a white robe without worry.

But that is not the way it is. Maybe the colors are meant as a reassurance to the observers of these professionals. The doctor’s white coat communicates to patients that whatever procedure or experience they will have will be antiseptic, clean, and simple. On the other hand, judges wear black, which is a color for calm, for hiding emotions. The color communicates to litigants that once they are in the courtroom, logic and reasoning prevail. There will be no emotional turmoil. But actually, these appearances hide the truth of both experiences.

Judges robes were not always black. Here’s John Jay, looking positively peacockian compared to today’s judges.

Judges in England, in centuries past, chose from three colors for their robes: violet for summer, green for winter, and scarlet for special occasions. Black robes supplanted the showier robes reportedly in the late 1600s perhaps due to mourning for the death of Queen Mary or Charles II.

One survey indicates a reason why the legal profession may have settled on black for robes. Black is seen as serious and reliable, and black exudes confidence. Black is an intimidating color, linked to power, indicating strength and discipline. For someone who is ruling on issues that will affect people’s lives, a color that lends authority is critical. Isn’t it easier to accept a wrenching decision from a “man (or woman) in black” than from someone who looks a little silly?