Lifting the Veil: The History Behind One of Our Oldest Wedding Traditions

Wearing a veil to your wedding is a tradition with roots so deep that it predates white wedding gowns. And like many other wedding traditions, this one exists because of the patriarchy. We’re all surprised, I’m sure. That said, I still wore a veil to my wedding. I’ll get to my own reasoning why, but first, let’s ask a much bigger “why:” why do we wear veils at all?

Origin of the Bridal Veil

From Judaism to Christianity to Hinduism, wedding ceremonies have involved veils for thousands of years. Ancient cultures used veils to hide the bride from evil spirits, but as time went on, veils became a symbol of purity and chastity – yet another way to signal to everyone present that the bride was a virgin. There’s some speculation that in the cases of arranged marriages, the veil was lifted from the bride’s face so she could be presented to the groom either right before or after the ceremony for approval. The “right before the ceremony” lore says that the groom and his family had to make sure they were being given the right daughter and weren’t the victims of a bait-and-switch. The “after the ceremony” lore says that the veil is lifted after marriage in case the groom doesn’t like what he sees. Then the marriage is already finalized and he can’t back out.

And these are all lovely traditions surely designed to make women feel wonderful about themselves.

Sheesh.

A funny side effect of those long-ago veils from Ancient Greece and Rome? They were floor length and flame-colored, and while they definitely obscured the bride’s face, they also obscured her vision. That’s why brides were walked down the aisle by someone. They couldn’t see and someone had to make sure the bride wouldn’t trip and fall.

The Veil in Everyday Life

Veils weren’t just a symbol of the bride – they were (and in many places, still are!) a symbol of being a married woman. In Ancient Rome, wearing a veil signified that you were under your husband’s control. Conversely, not wearing a veil meant your marriage was dissolving. By the Middle Ages, this had evolved into a married woman covering her hair, but not her face. Christianity and Judaism continued to slowly eliminate the veil as a mandatory item of clothing, replacing it with hats (sometimes with a short piece of lace attached) or head scarfs. But the veil is still used in many religions as a symbol of purity. Consider, for instance, the last time you saw a statue or painting of the Virgin Mary. She was wearing a veil, wasn’t she?  

For remaining such a staple in wedding culture, and for having such deep roots in religions around the world, the veil has become a controversial topic, particularly in regards to Muslim women. Some countries have gone as far as to ban veil-wearing by Muslim women, including France. It’s the subject of a lot of heated discussion across Europe, the UK, and the US. Who would have thought that such a small piece of fabric would cause such a ruckus?

So, Do You Want to Wear a Veil to Your Wedding?

I did. My husband is Hindu, and for the Hindu portion of our ceremony, I was required to wear a veil to show my respect to the deities as well as to the elders present. My mother-in-law had a veil made for me, and my sister-in-law put it on me at the appropriate moment.

And since our wedding was all about combining worlds (I am not Hindu), I decided to wear a western-style veil for the western portion of our wedding. For me, it was about celebrating the traditions of both of our cultures. Though I will mention that I lifted my own veil from my face before the ceremony started. It felt like a nice way to honor the past while embracing a more independent, feminist future.

If you’re considering wearing a veil, you might want to ask yourself what’s important about it to you, and how much the sometimes-troubling history of the veil means to you.

Either way, the same rule applies to veils as well as to everything else on your wedding day: your wedding gets to look however you want it to. Wearing a veil can be wonderful, but not wearing a veil doesn’t make you any less married.

Did you or are you considering wearing a veil to your wedding? Why or why not?

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