Silk stockings not fine and dandy with all elite British men

Britain's new Parliament Speaker balks at knee breeches and other traditional regalia.

Michel Martin doesn't mind getting dressed up, but he draws the line at a traditional full-bottomed wig, ceremonial gown, knee breeches, black silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes.

And we're not talking about Halloween night.

Elected last week as Speaker of the House of Commons, Britain's lower house of Parliament, Mr. Martin has been turning up in an ordinary flannel jacket and trousers instead of the customary attire that Speaker's have donned for the past 250 years. That's an almost revolutionary stance in tradition-strapped Britain, but one that nevertheless appears to be catching on.

In a further blow to convention, Lord Woolf, the nation's top judge, has said that he is of a mind to dispense justice bare-headed in the future. He says he is fed up with the ceremonial horsehair wig that goes with the job, weighs more than a pound, and is hot in summer.

He has even hinted that he wouldn't be unhappy if all judges decided to do likewise.

"I know there is a great affection for the traditions that we have," he told London's Daily Telegraph newspaper. "But, equally, I know that wearing wigs, especially if they are spaniel-type wigs, enables us to be portrayed as out of touch, anachronistic dinosaurs."

Martin and Lord Chief Justice Woolf are both following in the footsteps of Lord Chancellor Irvine, who presides in the House of Lords, Britain's upper chamber. Two years ago, he, too, jettisoned the wig, declaring, "It weighs a ton."

In an even more radical departure from centuries of tradition, Lord Irvine said that he was tired of having to walk backward in the presence of the queen when she opens sessions of Parliament with pomp and ceremony.

Previous lord chancellors have always slipped into reverse when withdrawing from the throne, as a posterior view was considered disrespectful. But such moves to abandon hallowed modes of dress and conduct have not passed without comment. Tradition still counts for a lot, especially among older Britons.

Lord Weatherill, a former Commons Speaker, has accused Martin of diminishing the dignity of his office. "The wig is terribly important because it draws attention to the office and not to the person," he insisted in a recent newspaper interview. "In ages past, wearing a wig was a way of preserving the anonymity of judges and Commons Speakers outside court and Parliament."

However, Martin isn't slicing his way through tradition quite as ruthlessly as reports have suggested.

Six years ago, Martin's predecessor, Betty Boothroyd, also presided in the Commons without a wig. In her case, it was easy to forget the fact.

The first woman Speaker in British history had her own fine head of white hair. From a distance it could be mistaken for a wig, and certainly contrasted fetchingly with her black robes.

Martin's near hairless pate, on the other hand, makes his wigless state all the more obvious.

And in modern-day Britain, where the royalty and the Rolling Stones have contrastingly coexisted, critics ask, "If wigs and robes can be so readily dispensed with, what about crowns and scepters?"

The answer, as always in Britain, is changing traditon will take quite a while.

Meanwhile, Tony Benn, a Labour Member of Parliament who renounced his peerage (he was Viscount Stansgate) in the 1960s, says he favors plain dress for most occasions, but is "more concerned with the arcane way Mr. Martin was elected than with what he wears."

Sandal Seaford - whose company, Sightline, rents fancy-dress costumes to Londoners - says Speaker Martin "seems to be a one-off" in his aversion to regalia. "There's no falling off in the number of our customers who want to dress up in traditional clothes. "But as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Martin can wear what he likes so long he is a good Commons Speaker."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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