Western bridal fashion is steeped in years of tradition. Everything from the gown to the ring has a history, and this is especially true of the veil.
The wearing of a bridal veil is an old one, dating all the way back to the days of the Ancient Romans. Roman brides wore floor-length veils of red or gold called flammeum, believing that these ornaments would protect the bride from possession by evil spirits who might be jealous of her happiness and wish her harm.
In Mesopotamia the veil was used as a part of the wedding ceremony itself. In this ritual the groom was required to cover the bride’s head and face with the veil to declare that she was now his wife. Interestingly, this practice was only followed by the nobility, as the sumptuary laws outlined in the Code of Hammurabi (C. 1790 BC) forbade the wearing of veils by any woman of the lower class.
In later Western tradition, many marriages between upper-class couples were arranged, with the bride and groom not even meeting each other until the middle of the wedding ceremony. At this time, it is theorized that the veils were not only seen as a symbol of modesty and chastity, but as a way to obscure the features of the bride until the end of the ceremony to limit the risk of the groom backing out of the union because he was dissatisfied with his bride’s appearance.
Interestingly, similar traditions that conceal the bride’s face are found within Japanese wedding ceremonies. Brides who wish to have a traditional Shinto ceremony wear what is called a wataboshi hood, which would conceal her face from all but the groom. They could also choose to wear a folded veil known as the tsuno kakushi (tsuno meaning “horns”), intended to veil the wicked traits of ego, jealousy, and selfishness and symbolizing her wish to be a gentle and obedient wife.
For most Western brides, long veils remained the fashion until the 1940’s, when wartime material rationing limited the resources available to make them. At this time, brides often wore cute little hats or shorter elbow-length or cage-style veils.
Over the next twenty years, veils increased in volume with multiple layers being added until it almost looked like there was a giant waterfall of tulle cascading off of the bride’s head. Bridal veils took a back seat in the 1970’s, replaced by quirky hairpieces and broad-brimmed hats.
Today, the bridal veil is seen as simply another beautiful accessory to accent the gown. Most often they come in shades of white or ivory, and are usually made of lace, beaded net, or tulle. They range from flirtatious cage veils that just cover the eyes, to chapel-length styles that are several feet long, and a dozen lengths in between.