Fashion Trend Alert: Chapel Veils are Back!

Across the scores of undergraduate students who populate our pews for Mass, we’ve seen a decided uptick in one particular demographic:  young women who elect to wear the mantilla or “chapel veil” during the celebration of Mass.Image result for chapel veil young catholic women in church

These veils come in black or white faux “lace,” and usually reach to just below the shoulders.  Certainly, not every young Catholic woman in our congregation, or even the majority of them, wears a veil; yet, of the 30 women in my line of sight from the organ bench at an all-campus Mass, I can count 5 “chapel veils”—an informal and unscientific survey which yields about 15% of our select, Mass-going population of Catholic undergraduate students as “veil-wearers.”

The practice of head-covering has deep roots in religious practices of the ancient world, as well as continued traditions of cultural piety in Euro-North American contexts.  For Catholics, veil-wearing has also officially been articulated in canon law, most recently, within the 1917 Code of Canon Law at canon 1262 §2:

Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.

Yet, despite the “law on the books,” and beyond the living memory of my undergraduate ladies (born between 1996-2000), Catholic women had begun to abandon the practice of head-covering even before the Second Vatican Council.  By the mid-1970s, the practice had all but disappeared, a fact that was explicitly acknowledged and accepted by Paul VI’s Inter Insigniores (1976), which explained the seeming neglect of an ordinance of canon law:

It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Corinthians 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value (no. 4).

In turn, the 1983 Code of Canon Law did not reissue the canon, and by doing so, effectively nullified the previous 1917 code.  While some women continued to wear hats (I distinctly recall a gray-haired woman who wore a weird woolen stocking cap covered with wooden beads in my 1980’s grade school parish experience), the practice was relatively limited to older parishioners, and was no longer stipulated or encouraged amongst the faithful.

The rapidity of the death of veils, hats, or (in a pinch) handkerchiefs or tissues to cover the head of all women and girls at Mass might be somewhat surprising to us.  It is also interesting to note that, perhaps contrary to the imagined narrative, the wearing of veils was not suppressed by any document of the Second Vatican Council, but, for better or worse, became one of the cultural casualties of the latter half of the 20th century.  Not only the proper attire for Sunday worship, but women’s styles in general changed radically over the course of some 15 years (1955-1970).  modRemember (or have you heard) how shocked the world was when “Laura Petrie” (Mary Tyler Moore) wore pants on the Dick Van Dyke Show?  While pants appeared, hats, gloves, panty hose, and worse all saw their day, and have been gleefully kissed goodbye by mainstream Western (and, in this context, American Catholic) culture.  In the present, such formalities of dress are only seen in the most traditional of Anglo circumstances, namely, the royal family in the United Kingdom.

So, what of the young ladies who are re-embracing a habit which was naturally abandoned more than five decades ago?  Perhaps it coincides with a desire to take on a physical “habit” which displays identity (much as some younger congregations of religious sisters have done).  I have asked some of these young ladies why they wear their veils—one noted how she appreciated Paul’s instruction, and noted how wearing a veil made her feel more respectful at Mass.  Likewise, I was told, “Since others are wearing the veil, I feel more comfortable doing it.” Apparently, there is some “strength in numbers,” or perhaps, the emergence of a sub-culture in which veil-wearing is acceptable.

An internet search for chapel veils, if you are interested, yields a surprising plethora of results, including tips on color, style, how-to’s, and etiquette.  For example, Veils by Lily explains what to do with one’s veil in the delicate situation of a wedding, where one would not wish to usurp the bride:

If the wedding is in a Catholic Church where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle, then yes! That said, it may be best to avoid white so as not to match the bride. You might also want to steer away from black so as not to appear to be in mourning. Black & gold is a great, subtle combination for festive occasions. You can also match the color of your outfit; for example, you can pair a gray veil with a gray outfit, or a black & blue veil with a blue outfit. Image result for wearing a chapel veil to a wedding

Other sites, such as Fashionista, recount reasons that young women have begun “re-adopting” the chapel veil, such as journalist Whitney Bauck’s piece in which she asks several young Catholics why they wear the veil, including Forest Hempen, a 24-year-old woman from Ohio who confessed having a “holy crush” on Pope St. John Paul II:

To Hempen, chapel veils represent a whole range of things: a way to emulate the veil-wearing Virgin Mary, an experience of “authentic femininity” that sets women apart as specially blessed bearers of life and a reminder that she and all members of the church are to consider themselves brides in a symbolic marriage to Jesus, whom the Bible sometimes describes as a bridegroom.

Aside from fashion tips and personal testimonies, rest assured, there are a multitude of avenues one can pursue to purchase a veil—from sites peopled by independent artists to worldwide internet shopping platforms who sport a smile as their logo.

Will chapel veils continue to be a trend (even if limited) among young, Catholic women?  Or will they go the way of fanny packs and cargo pants?  Or, is the re-emergence of the veil among millennial and “Generation Z” Catholics one glimpse of a Church of the future which is beyond the veil of our own present imagination?

Share:

19 comments

  1. Interesting cultural differences highlighted in this report.

    In the UK, the term “chapel veil” has no meaning. Most would assume it referred to a tabernacle veil. We call the item a mantilla, or just “veil”. Normally black, or white for First Communion, Confirmation, etc, it had already largely died out before Vatican II, as Katharine states.

    Black ones are almost exclusively confined to Extraordinary Form celebrations now. People joke about “Mantilla the Hun”. Most women in church do not wear a head covering, except those of African origin who tend to wear native dress including a “turban” for special occasions including Sunday Mass.

    At First Communions, while veils can still be found, though they are increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Scotland seems to have more veils than are found in churches further south. White circlets with flowers seem to have mostly replaced them, or occasionally white mini-tiaras. The aim seems to be to make the young girls resemble wingless little angels rather than icons of the Virgin.

    Veils — or indeed any female head coverings — are no longer encountered at Confirmations anywhere to my knowledge.

    1. People joke about “Mantilla the Hun”.

      Perhaps “people” should be a little less judgmental of their sisters in Christ, and respect their right to choose what to wear to the Lord’s Supper without subjecting them to unChristian snark.

  2. I would counter that in the 1960s >hats< for ladies were going out of fashion in all facets of life, and veils replaced them for church-going, Catholic women. Moving into the 1970s with the on-slaught of changes prompted by Vatican II in the church, mirrored by women's liberation and dramatic fashion shifts in secular life, veils and all head coverings for women were abandoned as well.
    The larger question for me, prompted by the publishing of this article: is it detrimental to the faith of some to see covered heads on few? And finally, are those that have chosen to do so castigating those who do not? If not, live and let live, for as the ditty goes: "All are welcome!"

  3. All I will say is that it was much, much easier to be a boy than it was to be a girl in the 50s and 60s. We got to be altar servers; we got away with stuff frequently because ‘boys will be boys” but girls ‘should know better’, and finally, when we assembled for Mass on Friday before lunch, any girl without a chapel veil (frequently a lace disc larger than a yarmulke but not shoulder length) got tissue pinned to her head by the nuns.
    If it enhances your worship and your spirituality by all means do it. That goes for just about any pre-Vatican II custom, but just don’t be judgmental of those who don’t feel the same way.

  4. This topic reminds me of the 1960’s when I frequently forgot to bring my veil with me to Mass and my mom would make me wear one of my father’s used handkerchiefs on my head . I kid you not! What a degrading experience of Church!

  5. The Catholic custom was for unmarried women to wear a white veil and for married women to wear darker ones. Of course, Kleenexes with bobby pins also worked well.

    In many of the the Eastern Orthodox parishes veiling is common through not the lace type but an actual silk or other material (stylish) scarf that covers the hair and is thrown over the shoulder. More and more Eastern Catholic parishes are seeing women veiling in this way.

  6. Last year in a Florida parish at Mass I did see the drummer in the contemporary band wearing a lace mantilla.
    Interesting

    1. I haven’t seen that exact combination, but a good number of the young women I know who do wear a chapel veil also seem to prefer praise and worship music. It’s interesting that this small revival isn’t necessarily connected with a renewed interest in other things often grouped together as “traddie.”

      1. That would not surprise me at all. Over the decades, I’ve learned to never to assume a congruence of someone’s preferred devotional praxis with their preferred liturgical praxis or music or their political leanings. While there are at the margins voluble minorities whose preferences align as one might assume, they are not in the middle of a Gaussian distribution, however much priests and liturgical ministers might imagine otherwise.

  7. Veils were not uncommon when I was a child growing up in Latin America in the 1960s, but by the 1970s they’d almost disappeared. I can attest to the fact that in our present time & context they have different meanings for different people. For my part I’m a consecrated widow, and at my initial profession my bishop gave me a veil to wear during worship as the outward sign of my inner vow… so of course I’d urge all to refrain from surface judgments. We don’t know about another’s story or their inner life with God unless we ask & they tell us. If we’re curious about another person’s practice or piety, why not ask with genuine curiosity & openness? In my experience we often get an interesting response… and, more importantly, we get to know each other better, more deeply.

  8. What I find interesting is that in every article I’ve read concerning the veil, Canon Law is the goto reference, and not scripture. I understand that 1 Cor. 11 isn’t everybody’s favorite chapter in the New Testament, but there it is. We can’t pick and chose which parts of God’s word we want to ignore and which to observe. The other interesting part of this chapter is the apparent allusion to the Book of Enoch, a book that was understood to be divine revelation during the time of Christ. Here is the passage in question, 1 Cor. 11:2-15
    “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.
    Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord. For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given (her) for a covering?

  9. There are two or three young women in our parish who wear them. I’ve never felt comfortable asking them about something so personal as what they’ve chosen to wear; I’ve assumed that they were following an ethnically-rooted tradition, but perhaps that was a faulty assumption.

    1. I’d encourage you to strike up a conversation, get to know them better on other terms, and then ask them about what moved/moves them to wear the veil. And, needless to say, the will be different for other people.

  10. It would never occur to me to ask women why they do or don’t wear headgear.

    That said, it would *occur to me* to gently remind a layman wearing a baseball cap or some such in church and who was not absorbed in prayer to remove it while in church. And then I would probably resist the impulse unless I knew him.

    Then again, I am old enough to remember polishing and trimming shoes on Saturdays. These days, I am stunned by all the able-bodied men out there with fashionable clothing who abuse their shoes. Then again, with parents from New England where there once was fairly wide culture of respect for shoes because so many people had family who worked in the manufacture and trade of them, I am over-primed to notice (more at work than in church) even at this remove.

    1. I have to agree with Karl Liam, why would someone even think to ask a woman why, in this case, they are wearing a head covering? Would you ask someone why they are wearing skirt instead of slacks or athletic shoes instead of dress shoes? Would you question a bride about showing too much skin in church on her wedding day? No wonder people stop going to Mass.
      That was my point earlier, here’s a direct quote from the article: “I have asked some of these young ladies why they wear their veils.” What may have confounded the writer and made her question these women may be seen by them as offensive or as an attack on their spiritual life or piety, especially when coming from someone seen as having some “position” in the Church. But I see it as just plain intrusive. Live and let live.

    2. It all depends on how you ask. Is your intent to accuse or condemn, or is your question born of true curiosity and eagerness to learn? Keep in mind that the person receiving your question will be able to tell the difference intuitively (often your tone & body language will be revealing).

      As for words: how about saying something like, “I noticed that you wear a veil in worship, and I’d like to learn more about it… because not too many make that choice today. Would you mind my asking: How did you come to wear it?” I can’t imagine anyone would be offended by that.

      For my part, I can say that I’ve been grateful every time that someone has asked rather than made facile assumptions or judgments (which abound).

  11. I am a bit late here, but does anyone have any thoughts on why the revival of this custom favors veils and not the once-popular hats? I think some people are under the impression that the pre-VII custom was to wear veils all the time, but my understanding is that (at least in the U.S.) most women actually wore hats. I have even heard the popularity of veils blamed on/credited to Jackie Kennedy, whose prominence was of course shortly before the custom died out.

    (And I agree with the comment above that “chapel veil” is a bit of an odd term anyway – the word chapel is associated either with schools, colleges, hospitals or with side chapels in a bigger church. That would not describe the type of church attended by the average American woman. But I guess sometimes a term becomes standard whether or not it make strict sense.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *