If you’re feeling that tug to veil, the questions start coming.
One of the first — and most important — will be, “but what will I wear?”
The first, and probably most obvious answer for us women today, is a mantilla. You know mantillas, right? Those awesome lacey veil that make you look like Jackie Kennedy or a sultry Spanish contessa? (As an aspiring countess myself, I’m rather partial to them.)
Today, mantillas abound and seem to preferred choice of Catholic women. We even call them “real” veils. It’s easy to think they are uber-traditional. All the holy women wore mantillas, right? Surely Our Lady did, and before her, Esther, Deborah, Miriam and Sarah. Actually, God probably gave Eve one when she and Adam were expelled from the Garden — if not before!
While the tradition of women covering their heads dates back to Apostolic times, the way we women have done that has changed dramatically over the years.
A Brief History of Christian Veiling
Roughly speaking, cloth veils or headscarves predominated in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
Then, cloth bonnets and kerchiefs became increasingly popular. (As did masks, to protect one’s complexion, you see!)
Straw bonnets, and other stiff materials, were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While hats only really making an impact after the 1870s — the cultural beginnings of the Edwardian period.
So where do mantillas fit into this?
You might have noticed that one of the 17th Dutch women was wearing a lace/sheer veil over her face. This was the century when mantillas first appeared. Lace was incredibly expensive commodity, and the more of it the better! Mantillas originated in Spain and despite being popular elsewhere, were always a characteristically Spanish fashion.
In the 19th Century, they enjoyed a deliberate revival as a feature of Spanish nationalism. Women started wearing them for only special occasions, and they became a symbol of Spanish culture. In that way, the evolution of the mantilla then is rather like that of the Scottish tartan. (But I’ll get to that!)
As far as I can tell, they started becoming widespread outside of Hispanic cultures in the 1950s and 1960s.
The 1960s was really the first time in the Western world that it was acceptable for women not to wear hats or scarfs out-of-doors. So it was a natural time for the mantilla to come to the fore. They were light, attractive, could be neatly taken off and fitted perfectly over those 60s dos.
In terms of headcovering fashion, women haven’t tended to wear hats to church — let alone anywhere else since the 1960s.
Because they were the fashion the last time women covered their heads in church on any large scale, we think of them as the tradition today.
So Should I Wear a Mantilla or Not?
It’s really up to you!
There’s nothing particularly special about a lace veil or mantilla. At the same time, they have their advantages. Remember how I said that Spanish mantillas are a bit like Scottish tartans? These days, both aren’t just traditional clothing, but have become powerful and easily recognisable symbols.
While the mantilla will always be quintessentially Latina, it has also become characteristically Catholic. It’s what all those living today remember wearing to Mass, or remember their parents or grandparents telling them about it.
For many of us, mantilla equals Catholic.
I think that’s beautiful. In our non-hat wearing culture, they communicate that we take our Catholic traditions seriously. At the same time, wearing anything else is just as traditional!
It says I am proud of my heritage. It’s not claiming to be the be all and end all, but it’s a small something: a reminder of not so distant past, and a call to preserve that inheritance for the future. The mantilla, for better or for worse, is a symbol of Catholic identity.
I say we embrace it!
Besides, let’s be honest, it’s not like millinery fashion has really advanced since then… poor Princess Beatrice!