In Smithsonian Magazine, Justice O’Connor writes about the tradition of the judicial robe, and how she made her own “modest addition” of a neck doily.
Remarkably, this similarity among our judges and justices is purely a matter of tradition. There are no rules that dictate what judges or justices must wear on the bench, nor is there even a common source for Supreme Court robes. The court’s internal correspondence suggests that, in the 19th century, the justices all wore black silk robes from a single tailor. By the 20th century, other materials were often used and judges selected their robes from those available to college graduates and choir singers. For the most part, we have all chosen to wear a very similar style of black judicial robe.
Of course, there have been a few exceptions, intentional or otherwise. In the marshal’s office records of the court, there is a note that in 1969, Justice Hugo Black “returned to the Bench” without his robe on and sat on the bench for the remainder of the court session, departing with his colleagues. But there’s no record of whether something happened to his robe or he just forgot to put it on. And Chief Justice William Rehnquist added gold stripes to one arm of his robe. It was an unannounced departure: He simply surprised us with the change one morning. He said he had recently seen a Gilbert & Sullivan opera in which the lord chief justice wore a robe with gold stripes. Our chief asked the seamstress at the court to sew some on his own robe. I myself made a modest addition to the simple black robe by choosing to wear a white judicial collar.
Don’t be so modest!