For Isabelle, a 31-year-old architect from Nantes who will marry Dimitri next summer, the question of whether or not to wear a veil on her wedding day isn’t up for debate.
“I can’t imagine entering the church without wearing the veil that my mother and grandmother already wore … It’s important for me to remain faithful to this beautiful family tradition, and perhaps one day to pass it on to my daughter. But that’s not all. The veil also symbolizes commitment and fidelity for me,” she tells Aleteia.
Celestina Agostino, a Parisian wedding dress designer, is also in favor of its use.
“The bridal veil is for me a biblical garment. My clients, those who get married in the church, are increasingly returning to the tradition of wearing a veil. For some of them, it enhances the wedding dress. For others, it carries real meaning,” says.
This wedding accessory, which is worn in front of the bride’s face as she enters the church on her father’s arm, is actually loaded with rich symbolism. If we look at its history, we find early traces of its origins in Virgil’s Aeneid: as a sign of offering, men would wear a veil before the gods. This sign of religious devotion would become a powerful symbol for the Romans.
Thus, in antiquity, every bride wore a veil. In fact, the Latin word “nubere,” which means “to veil,” is synonymous with “to marry.” The veil was a symbol of a wife’s commitment to her husband. On the other hand, at that time it was also used to distinguish married or widowed women from single women, slaves, and prostitutes. A woman’s hair being uncovered was considered an attribute of female seduction, so it had to be reserved for the husband in the intimate sphere of the home. The Roman wedding veil was called the “flammeum”: red or orange, it symbolized joy and fertility.
In the Middle Ages, marriage was a commitment between the parents of the bride and groom. Traditionally, the veil worn by the bride-to-be was opaque, so as to hide her face. Why? So that her husband could discover her for the first time on their wedding night. If the future husband already knew his bride, both had to wear a veil during the ceremony to be blessed.
Symbol of purity and chastity
In Christianity, the explanation of the bridal veil can be found in the Bible where St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:16) mentions that the married woman should be veiled as a sign of her devotion to God. Since marriage is a religious celebration, in the same spirit and for the same reason as in that text, the bride (“the veiled one” in Hebrew) had to wear a veil. She was not to reveal herself until she reached the bridal chamber. The symbol of purity and chastity was therefore strong: the veil was reserved for a pure young woman.
As for its white color, it was in 1840 that Queen Victoria launched the fashion of the white wedding. As a queen, the young woman should have worn red. But, defying tradition and to everyone’s surprise, she opted for a white satin dress adorned with lace, with a white tulle veil turning into a long train.
The young royal bride thus launched the fashion of the white wedding gown. More surprisingly, the color white was not chosen as a symbol of purity (a meaning given a posteriori) but simply because the white satin enhanced the beauty of the lace. This use of white for wedding gowns then took the same symbolism as the bridal veil, that of purity and virginity, in 1858, following the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes. The young girl described how Mary, dressed all in white, presented herself as the Immaculate Conception.
Queen Elizabeth II revived the traditional bridal veil in the style of Queen Victoria: hers was 13 feet long and decorated with embroidery in the form of flowers and pearls. As for Lady Di’s veil, it still holds the historical record for the longest veil worn at a royal wedding, measuring nearly 40 feet!
Although the bridal veil is not mandatory today, it is still a common tradition for a bride to wear a veil in front of her face until the bride reaches the altar or until the vows are exchanged and the husband lifts the veil from her face in a gesture that completes the beautiful symbolism of the bridal veil.