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History of Veils
Queen Victoria is credited as being the first to wear a white dress to her wedding in 1840
Today, a brides veil is often merely an accessory to the traditional white or cream bridal costume. It may be worn over the face during a portion of the marriage ceremony, and then lifted up discretely by the groom after the ceremony for the first kiss of the marriage. The bride’s veil does not always cover the face, however, in many modern weddings. It simply covers the head and a portion of the back of the head. Veils can be long and elaborate affairs, or quite short and simple.
There are numerous explanations as to the ancient symbolism of a bride’s veil. For example, quite against the custom of many other groups, a Jewish wedding may include a ceremonial veiling of the bride by the groom. This can symbolize the groom’s respect for the bride without regard to her beauty. It can also be seen as a form of possession. The bride’s looks are for the groom alone and thus should be veiled.
Ancient Greece and Rome often used the bride’s veil to specifically conceal the bride’s appearance. Since most marriages were arranged, the groom might not see the bride until the wedding day. As crass as it sounds, families didn’t want a potential spouse rejected if the groom did not find the looks of the bride appealing. Thus the bride’s veil was a concealing device, and was frequently not white. Instead red veils tended to be popular in Ancient Greece. In Rome, yellow veils were often the color of choice.
Some also date the tradition of veiling the bride to the Norse, and to other cultures where women were essentially kidnapped and married to their kidnappers. A blanket might be thrown over the head of the woman, in a rough precursor to the bride’s veil. This often secured and subdued the captured woman.
In Middle Eastern cultures, women were quite frequently veiled in the company of men. This is still the case in many countries. A bride’s veil is thus necessary for modesty. The removal of the veil is for the husband only. Only the bride’s family and husband are allowed to see the woman unveiled. Clearly many modern Middle Eastern women do not don a veil, but in many countries, being seen without the veil is considered a crime, or at the least quite inappropriate.
The custom of the bride’s veil was one frequently adopted in the Middle Ages in most of Europe. Often this custom was linked to superstition. The bride’s veil protected the bride from evil curses or spirits. Also superstition exists that it is simply bad luck to for a groom to see a bride before the wedding. In some beliefs, even a bride should not see herself in full costume until the day of the wedding. The bride’s veil is not tried on with the dress, and it is put on at the last possible moment prior to the wedding.
The bride’s veil has also come to represent the woman’s transition from the pure and virginal state to the married state, and many modern and past cultures feel virginity prior to marriage is ideal. The white bridal costume along with the veil symbolizes this virginity.
Further, until recently, it was inappropriate to not cover the head in many churches. Thus brides either wore a hat or a veil in order to show modesty and respect to God. Some women in more conservative churches may wear the veil more for this symbol of respect, than for any other significance.
Many feminists argue that the bride’s veil is a continued representation of women’s subjugation to man. It implies the husband owns the wife and is thus distasteful. To them, veiling may be seen as a man’s rule, forced upon women and is thus repressive. A modern bride may eschew the veil if she equates it with man’s oppression of women.
On the other hand, the floating gauze, lace, silk, net, or taffeta, is often quite beautiful. Many women chose to wear a bride’s veil simply because it is pretty. Whatever symbolism the bride’s veil may have held in the past may be less important to some women than its attractive qualities.