Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In which I ramble about veils, again

I've been looking at cars online much of the afternoon; we're trying to decide what to do, if and when our elderly minivan finally gives up

Anyway, I thought I might write a quick follow-up to yesterday's veil post, because an email I exchanged with a reader sparked an interesting train of thought.

To begin with, though, let's look at this recent comment from Father Z.'s poll/post:
Why does the head covering always have to be a 19th-century mediterranean mantilla – or whatever it is? You might as well wear an ancient Athenian helmet. What’s the idea here? Cover the hair? Cover the top of the head? Look almost like a (habited) nun while retaining enough distinction to show you’re not? Would a zaccheto do? Would a chador be too much?
Which of the Easter bonnets in the movie Easter Parade would suffice?
I have often wondered about that, too. And I give major props to the next commenter at Father Z.'s, who shares the link to this hat, which certainly fits the bill if the goal is simply to cover the hair!

A traditionalist website to which I will not link (a policy of mine) asserts that Christian women have practiced "veiling" for two thousand years; this "veiling" took place when women entered a church or were in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I tend to smile, a little, at such statements--because there is such a false impression given by them. We see, in our mind's eye, a simple European peasant girl, passing by a church on a weekday; she pauses, makes the sign of the cross, carefully drapes a large and elegant lace veil over her head, and enters to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament...

But a quick visit to the paintings of someone like Jean Francois Millet shows us what that peasant girl would more likely be wearing--a simple twist of some rough fabric, which she wore all the time to cover her head, not just when she happened to pass a church. Some nicer fabric, or an actual hat, might repose in her closet for Sunday; but lace, in the days before machine-made lace, was impossibly expensive and not likely to belong to most Catholic women.

In fact, a single lace mantilla in Madrid in the year 1830 could cost today's American equivalent of six hundred to two thousand dollars. Middle-class women scrimped and saved to afford mantillas with lace borders, while poorer women made do with fabric mantillas in the best fabric they could afford.

Did they do this to honor the Lord? Well, according to a book written in that time, in Madrid in 1830 women in the middle and lower classes still wore their mantillas as their "everyday" head coverings. Only the wealthiest women--the ones with the fanciest veils--started saving their mantillas for church and wearing the newer (and even more costly!) European hats to the theater and other social venues.

How it is that the mantilla, a particularly Spanish form of head covering, became the preferred head covering of traditional women in America in the twenty-first century is truly puzzling. Sure, in some sections of the American Southwest where the Hispanic population has always been sizable, the mantilla may truly be the more traditional head covering for Catholic women; but I suspect that for the rest of America, the culprit is really the chapel veil.

Although "chapel veil" and "mantilla" are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. The chapel veil has always been an abbreviated veil; even Protestant women sometimes wore them--on their wedding day--provided that the dress didn't call for a full-length veil. By the time most Catholic women began carrying a little square of lace inside its own special pouch in their purses, the custom of wearing hats for all formal occasions, including church, had begun to die down. Prior to that time, if a woman was outdoors at all, she was wearing something on her head: a hat, a bonnet, a scarf. But by the 1920s, the female custom of wearing a hat anytime a woman was outside had begun to decline; the two World Wars and their various effects made hat-wearing less and less frequent, so that by about the 1950s it was necessary for a Catholic woman to make some provision for an "emergency" head-covering in case she needed to enter a church at some time when she wasn't already wearing a hat.

The chapel veil filled that purpose, and made it even less necessary for women to wear hats. Photos of the inside of American Catholic churches during Mass prior to 1960 showed rows of women in hats, but after that time, the hats started to disappear; some, certainly, replaced by "emergency" veils, but some replaced by nothing at all.

The truth was that the sign of the covered head, as explained by St. Paul, really had lost its force. Women had been wearing head coverings, many of them bonnets or hats, and rarely a veil of lace, for centuries--not just at Mass, but any time they were out in public. The head covering had become merely a matter of fashion--and when, as fashions do, it began to disappear altogether, the original meaning behind St. Paul's exhortation for women to cover their hair (not merely their heads) had already been lost.

This is why I think that the practice of covering the head ought to remain voluntary, and not receive some sort of special mark of encouragement. It is not that women have become feminists and thus will revolt at the idea of anyone telling them they must wear an article of clothing that is rarely worn (and I mean the hat, here, not the veil). It is because St. Paul's meaning began to be lost when women began covering their heads with head-coverings which did not completely cover the hair, or which allowed it to remain visible--which occurred sometime around the seventeenth century, as near as I can tell, when those elaborate layered cloth head coverings were simplified to the point that the woman's hair was now quite visible around the sides of the cap or hat, and, depending on the hair style, draping down her back as well.

Nobody is calling for a return to the medieval wimple, in other words, or the medieval coif, either of which did a fine job of covering the woman's glory--that is, her hair. The preference, in fact, is for a transparent bit of cloth that permits the hair to be seen quite well.

Chapel veils can be quite pretty. Baseball caps are not, however--and does anyone really doubt that the result of a new mandate from Rome requiring women to cover their heads would not lead to plenty of women at Mass wearing Bermuda shorts, tee shirts, and the ball caps of their favorite teams? We can't impose a new vision of Catholic traditional culture on the present day and age by adopting as a custom something that was once used by most of our grandmothers as an emergency stop-gap; and if we really want Rome to clarify what St. Paul meant by covering our heads, we'd better be prepared to put away the lacy veils and figure out how to make a coif, wimple, or other head-covering that actually covers the hair.


Rebecca in CA said...

ROFL...good post. My little friend who converted from Mormonism had an observation..."I'm not doing the doily on the head...just not going there." I either wear a hat or an actual scarf wrapped around, if I wear a head covering, though I think Mantillas can look nice on others. Seems like they always require a lot of adjusting, though.

melanie said...

Oh so very funny! (link to hat)...yes and to add to what you are saying, our relationship to our hair has changed as well. Years ago, women didn't necessarily cut and style their hair as they do today. It was long. And depending on whether you could afford hygiene, probably quite beautiful if clean, but I wonder how often people bathed back in the day. Maybe Sunday mass would be an occasion to finally wash ones hair but then depending on when you washed it,
It would just be long and wet and it was probably most practical to cover it. Or, you braided it and put it up to sleep and then in the morning you had bed hair. I mean it was much more cumbersome and yes on a good day probably magnificent. I am thinking of Kristen I am guessing that in some ways the covering of the hair arose as many things do, out of necessity and practicality for women and took on significance from there. As time went by and soap and water and good haircuts took over, hair has lost some of it's magnificent and mysterious appeal. We don't need hats, we have highlights...I'm half kidding. But now days I am just not sure our hair is much of a distraction. Maybe I am wrong.

Unknown said...

Rebecca - if I wear a mantilla, I tie it behind my head (usually put my hair up first) so I don't have to worry about it sliding, or my children pulling it off. I sometimes choose a headscarf, though, with my hair pulled up under it (see the tznius website for what I'm talking about).

freddy said...

Excellent, Red!
I would also suggest that the advent of the permanent wave and the home hair dryer had more to do with the loss of hats than a failing of Catholic culture.

Bathilda said...

good post, and I have to say that I am surprised that you take this stance on this issue. refreshing.
One thing I would like to say is that I would like to go the rest of my life without reading or hearing that a woman's hair is her "glory". (from someone in our time) (and with a straight face) How insulting is that? My glory is my brain, and it already covered, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have to add...if I hear one more man stating that women are "distracting," (all inappropriate dress issues aside) I'm going to start handing out very dark sunglasses or even blindfolds for them to wear in church.

Alisha De Freitas said...

Great post! Informative and funny.

I'm Protestant, and while I once blogged about how pretty I think head coverings are and how I believe they are wonderful for many women... I still have come to no conclusion about it one way or the other.

One thing I can say is, when I go with my husband to any of the RC churches near our home, I NEVER see women wearing them. Sometimes an older woman might have on a hat, just like my Pentecostal grandmother wears to church, but that's it. And our city is actually more than half Latino and is one of the largest cities in New Jersey. Honestly, any women wearing a head covering would probably stick out like a sore thumb.

Bathilda, I HATE that saying, too! I grew up strict Pentecostal and heard it all the time. It was forced on women to prevent them to cut their hair. Sadly, many women were left with straggly dead ends- quite un-glorious. My family has gotten better. When I chopped off about 8 inches last year when I chose to stop relaxing, only a few reacted badly.

bathilda said...

thank you, anonymous. Stating that women are distracting in any way, (when they are not being deliberately provocative)is misogynistic. At best, men who find women distracting simply for being women need to get themselves to a shrink. or better yet, they can just get over themselves.

Susan Kehoe said...

Heh. I am old enough to remember that when I forgot my "doily" my mother would hand me a tissue to pin on my hair before entering the Church.

Susie said...

I've worn a veil off and on for a few years. I waited for awhile before I did so, because very few women in my diocese ever do, and I know it can be distracting for some to see a woman bucking the norm, so to speak. But after seeing how beautiful the handful of women were who wore them at my college, I did some research about it and came to the conclusion that it's simply another way to honor God and to show respect for where I am (the holy sacrifice of the Mass).

I stopped wearing it for awhile, though, because of the pressure I felt being the only one (or one of very few) wearing a veil. I love doing it because it helps put me in a more prayerful state for Mass, and tends to keep me more focused because it's a physical reminder of where I am, what I'm doing, and why I'm there, but so few women wear veils (quite possibly because no one else is, and no one likes sticking out) that, once again, I just didn't want to be a distraction. It's sort of frustrating. Wearing a veil doesn't diminish a woman's worth at all. It's another part of dressing up for Mass, in a way.

There's more to it than that, of course, but I happen to think it's a beautiful practice and I really wish there were more encouragement from more "official" voices, so that maybe more women would do it and it wouldn't become an internal battle for so many women like it is now. There's nothing wrong with not doing it, obviously, and not everyone wants or needs to, but there's also no malicious intent on those who would like to see a return to this practice.

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

So, women who want to veil feel judged and women who don't veil feel judged. Doesn't sound like a really sound reason to make Church law either way.

I wore a head covering for a while because it was something that really didn't appeal to me having grown up seeing lots and lots of wrinkled old ladies wearing their lace mantillas. I know that sounds strange, but it seemed like I needed a challenge in my spiritual life at that time, I needed to do something hard, so I decided I would attempt it as a personal act of piety (although I still only had one lace mantilla but several plain colored scarves which I preferred).

I always said that if it became a distraction to myself or my (at the time) very young children, I would stop. Well, eventually, this started happening, the girls would snuggle up and hide under my head covering and play peek-a-boo. But the straw that broke the camel's back for me were the women who suddenly "embraced me" for my new spiritual challenge but who also went on and on and on about how they soooo preferred "fine Spanish lace" mantillas to regular lace mantillas. They even scoffed at the idea of purchasing some mantillas from a Catholic family selling them online in favor of special ordering, as a group, some Spanish lace mantillas directly from Spain at a much higher cost. The vanity was unbelievable! This was not a matter of wanting to wear their finest in the presence of Our Lord as the domestic lace mantillas were quite lovely and very affordable, plus were supplementing a Catholic family's income. It was complete vanity and at that point, it became something so ugly to me that I stopped.

In the interest of full disclosure, we were attending Mass at a very traditional parish where the Novus Ordo Mass was offered in Latin on Sunday. My husband was supportive, as he always is, but really didn't have an opinion one way or the other on my decision. It was all mine. Our parish priest who would probably personally favored the practice was very open about telling people who questioned him on the subject of head coverings that Church teaching states, "A woman isn't sinning if she does and she isn't sinning if she doesn't!"

JMB said...

I think this is up there as one of the best post you've ever written.

I live in NJ and often go to daily mass wearing my winter hat. I feel funny because nobody wears a hat. I'm not even sure if I should keep it on or not, but often I'll keep it on because I have major hat head and static cling. It really is nothing about holiness for me, but practicality and vanity.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Kleenex and bobby pins (and slight embarrassment--only slight because others were wearing it too). It never was about piety for my sisters and I. And, now, that I have several sisters as nuns, the veil covers very nicely the fact that we've all inherited a recessive gene for thinning hair and baldness. My issue is the irritation I feel at wearing anything on my head, and will only concede if there's a windchill of -10 or lower.


Anonymous said...

Love it!

I personally think if the Church decides to legislate hair-covering, the Athenian helmut would get my vote. No vanity there, nosirreee.

And you can't possibly tell me that the sexy lace on so many mantillas doesn't make the mind of at least a man or two (especially the ones who claim they are so driven to distraction by women) here and there travel to other places he'd like to see such lace. Talk about distraction! ;)

Thanks for a great post, Erin.

Anonymous said...

I live in Madrid, Spain. Here, mantillas are commonly worn by the mother of the groom at a liturgical wedding -- but there's nothing self-effacing about them! Generally silver-grey or black, they are mounted on huge tortoise-shell combs, and come down over the shoulders and hang down the back. And yes, they are expensive! Further south, in Andalusia, it's not only the mother of groom in a mantilla, it's every wedding-goer who can afford one, in whatever color (I've seen electric blue) that matches the wearer's outfit.

In other words, the whole "wearing a mantilla" issue is very rooted in the local culture. It can be a sign of a certain kind of traditionalism at a weekday Mass, or a sign of red-carpet conspicuous consumption at a huge society wedding, depending on where you are.