By: Cornelia Powell
Bridal veils made a comeback with Princess Diana in the summer of 1981 like they did in the nineteenth century with Prince Charles’ great-great-great grandmother. Although Queen Victoria’s short lace veil—a lyrical masterpiece of handmade Honiton lace—was “decorative only,” pinned to her chignon and falling softly over her shoulders, Diana’s was long, lush and sparkly and, breaking with royal tradition, covered her face for a much fussed-over “virginal” arrival into St. Paul’s cathedral on her father’s arm. Many feminists called it a “shroud.” And for some modern young women just beginning to revel in their independence and sexual freedom during this time, wearing a bridal veil did, indeed, seem a bit out-of-date, if not out-of-touch.
Not insensitive to world politics in the 1980s and ‘90s—the years I had my bridal art-to-wear shop in Atlanta—my focus, however, was helping a bride feel just as beautiful inside as she looked outside. I loved the look of the sheer illusion veil like Diana wore, it seemed to connect a woman with something deeply feminine and quietly mysterious. Worn over the face, enveloping the bride in a quiet reverie, the veil helped block out a busy, distracting world, moving her attention inward. Fashion designer Vera Wang considers “nothing quite as transformational as a bridal veil. The blend of sensuality and ritual is positively seductive.”
The bridal veil in the European-American tradition went in and out of fashion during the last two-hundred years or so. But Queen Victoria followed “royal rules” more than fashion for her wedding in 1840. “Since the earliest centuries,” explained author Maria McBride-Mellinger, “royal brides, who very often had never met their affianced, could not conceal their faces, preventing a last-minute substitution.” (And this practice for Windsor brides continued until Diana.) British historian Ann Monsarrat described the trend for the rest of us: “Wearing a veil over the face did not evolve until the 1860s and ‘70s; and the custom of arriving at the church, veil demurely down, and leaving triumphantly bare-faced, was an even later refinement.”
Most ancient civilizations have something in their heritage around maidens and bridal veils. “The most important element of a Roman bride’s dress was her veil,” reported McBride-Mellinger. “In fact, ‘nubere’, the term for veiling, was synonymous with marriage, and the day after consummation was known as the unveiling.” Modern brides, nevertheless, may choose to wear a bridal veil simply because it’s fetching and pretty, whether a “maiden” or not!
Of course, the new millennium brought the first of modern royal brides in 2011 when the lovely Kate Middleton wed Prince William. “When she came in with that veil over her face, it was almost ethereal, like she was coming through a cloud—an angel coming into the Abbey,” said one dazzled wedding guest. The sheer layer of ivory silk tulle, finger-tip length and edged with hand-embroidered flowers created by the Royal School of Needlework, was rather magical as it caught the wind and became the perfect accessory to complete Kate’s exquisitely crafted silk and lace gown.
Like Kate, Meghan Markle, the bride of Prince Harry, chose the romantic style of entering the wedding chapel wearing a sheer veil over her face, attached to a royal diamond tiara. Yet, as Kate’s father had done for her, it was Meghan’s groom who performed the intimate “unveiling” at the altar: lifting the veil covering her face, meeting his beloved’s steady gaze, and melting our hearts at the same time.
However, Meghan’s approach to her veil was unique. “The veil was a big part of the story for me,” couture designer Clare Waight Keller explained about Meghan’s bridal ensemble. She had created an unadorned, pure-white architectural prism-of-a-gown with a sweeping train for the bride, so the veil became the captivating showpiece, embracing royal connections:
Expertly stitched by artisans working hundreds of hours, there was over 16 feet of gleaming white silk tulle with distinctive botanical motifs hand-embroidered in silk and organza fluttering in three-dimensional delight along the veil’s edge. (Flora representing each of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth—orchids, water lilies and pansies; a daffodil from Wales, bunchberry from Canada, and Scottish thistle—as well as California poppies and wintersweet to honor Meghan’s old and new homes; forget-me-nots to honor the groom’s late mother; and the mythological crops of wheat symbolizing love and charity.) The countries, memories and sentiments represented in this trailing “wild garden” enchantment—carried by gleeful twin pageboys as though they were displaying the most precious and charmed work-of-art—all went on the journey up and back down the aisle with Meghan, just as the designer had envisioned.
Both Kate and Meghan followed Diana’s lead with their veils, bringing this spirit of beauty—femininity and stillness, sacred yet seductive—into the hearts of modern brides worldwide. And, in turn, Meghan brought a fresh modernity to the bridal veil beyond any “fairy princess myth” into something so irresistibly feminine and confident about feeling beautiful and mysterious: Cocooned in sheer silk tulle with her veil floating behind—leaving “princess blessings” in her wake—and being revealed into the eyes of her beloved.
[Parts of this article are excerpts from “The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride: For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding”, other parts are, of course, inspired by the recent royal wedding.]
Wedding Folklorist, Fashion Historian, Author & Guest Speaker
Confluence Daily is the one place where everything comes together. The one-stop for daily news for women.