The funeral, or mourning veil has a very old and elaborate history. The act of draping a pall, coffin or bier in cloth is a symbolic gesture that represents grief and is an ancient custom that is still practiced today. The purpose of the veil was to mimic the funeral pall.
Over the centuries, the veil had many different styles. Both men and women utilized heavy, black cloth as cloaks, hats, caps and coats that often covered their entire bodies. Enforced dress codes were strictly followed during the funeral procession, specifically dealing with status and degree. The chief mourner’s veil might be the longest in the procession, while poor men and women were merely cloaked in heavy black gowns.
Eventually, the rules lightened and the mourning veil took on the style of the time, especially among the wealthy, who dictated the current trends. In the 19th century, veils were often long white pieces of fabric attached to widows’ caps or hoods. Likewise, during the 19th century, there was an increase in romanticizing women’s mourning attire. According to Anne Hollander, “a number of European and English paintings take women’s mourning black as a sentimental theme with pronounced erotic overtones.” This might explain the use of crepe, which was either silk or wool woven to create a crinkly, see-through fabric. The crepe created a sense of mystery, allowing minimal exposure to a woman’s face.
Contemporary Western cultural use of the veil differs from the past. Now, the wearing of a veil is more about etiquette than societal rules. Men have ceased covering their heads with black drapes or cloth, but may still wear a hat. The use of the veil is used solely by women, usually by the widow or elderly, female mourners. The veil is still made from a gauzy, see-through material, though it may only cover the upper-half of the face; however other styles are available.
The veil does not have a particular effect on a funeral, rather funeral etiquette dictates whether a veil is to be worn and by whom. According to Peggy Post, “Funeral-goers are advised to forgo casual clothes and wear those that were once considered required attire for a religious service… The funeral home or someone from the family of the deceased can also give you guidance on what to wear.” The social customs of Western culture influence dress and attire more than strict rules and regulations. Comfort, accessibility and practicality override formal laws and decorum. The use of a veil is entirely up to the wearer, with little to no repercussion should it be left aside.
- Seeing Through Clothes: Anne Hollender
- Emily Post's Etiuquette: Peggy Post
- Costume for Birth, Marriage and Death: Phillis Cunninton, Catherine Lucus