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Jacob, who has no money to pay Rachel's dowry, agrees to work for her father, Laban, for seven years, in exchange for his daughter's hand. Laban agrees. Seven years pass. But on the evening of the wedding, Laban sends not Rachel, but her older (and decidedly less attractive) sister, Leah, to the bridegroom's chamber, cloaked in a heavy veil, and Jacob — who is probably a bit drunk by this point; it is, after all, his wedding night, and they've been feasting for hours — can't tell the difference. Only when he wakes does he realize his mistake. Here again, the Old Testament is refreshingly terse: "And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!" Though sources differ on the origin and meaning of the custom, today, during traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies, it is the groom himself who covers the bride's face with a (sheer) veil, before they exchange vows.
I was not thinking of this charming Biblical anecdote when I got married, in a veil, last October. I am not Jewish. I am (just barely) Catholic, so barely, in fact, that despite some months of Sunday school before my First Communion, I didn't know the details of the Leah-Jacob-Rachel love triangle until I began researching the surprisingly elusive origins of the bridal veil.
Specifically, I wanted to wear what I learned to call a blusher veil: the kind that falls in front of the bride's face.
What I did know was that, though the ceremony would be devoid of most traditional trappings — my husband and I got married at City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts on a Tuesday; there were, including the two of us, six people in attendance; seven if you count the justice of the peace who wed us, in flared slacks — I wanted to wear a veil. Specifically, what I learned to call a blusher veil: the kind that falls in front of the bride's face. I wanted to drape tulle over my head and make my husband lift said tulle after the vows were pronounced and the rings exchanged — before he kissed me but after the deed was irreversibly done.
I wasn't trying to trick him. And yet, reading about Leah and Jacob and Rachel, I wondered if I wasn't trying to invoke, and therefore inoculate myself against, a fear at once rational and ludicrous: that my husband, in the morning, might awake and think to himself, Behold! Not the one I wanted after all.
There are other theories about the genesis of the traditional bridal veil. In an earlier passage from the Old Testament, Rebekah, Jacob's mother, sees her betrothed, Isaac, coming toward her across a field. Though they are promised to one another, they have never met; she turns to Isaac's servant, with whom she is traveling, and asks him who the man in the field is. When he tells her, she turns and covers herself with a veil. In ancient Rome, brides typically wore a "bright yellow, or flame-coloured veil, the flammeum," which provided head-to-toe coverage.
In their unfortunately named Planet Wedding: A Nuptial-pedia, Sandra and Harry Choron (a married couple who have collaborated on several books in what I would call the "compendium-of-general-knowledge" genre; the scarcity of more serious texts on the history of wedding rituals was, frankly, disappointing) report that in the ancient Near East, "a woman covered her face so that her husband wouldn't be killed for her beauty." (The Chorons also suggest that the veil may recall the "image of a man capturing his bride and throwing a blanket over her head before whisking her away." The reader may wonder, here, about the use of the word "bride." "Victim," frankly, seems more appropriate.) The Knot Book of Wedding Gowns trots out this bit of Americana: Apparently, George Washington's daughter, Nellie, was first spotted by her husband-to-be (one of Washington's aides) through a lace-curtained window. On their wedding day, "Nellie re-created the effect by wearing a lacy veil."
The veil, in short, embraces the conflicting conclusions about women born of centuries of misogyny.
But if I could find no definitive origin story for the veil's use in a wedding, across sources and cultures, a vague and unfortunate consensus emerged about the garment's enduring symbolic value. The veil signals sexual purity — perhaps because ancient Rome's vestal virgins wore them. (In Puerto Rico, an old superstition holds that if a bride's veil "falls off in church as she's walking down the aisle, it's . . . an actual sign from God . . . that she's not a virgin" — in which case the groom is permitted to reject his tainted would-be spouse.) It hides the bride's beauty or lack thereof, potentially crucial if the marriage is arranged and the groom has never seen his intended's face, and protects her from both "unwanted suitors" and "the ever-present stares of evil spirits."
It embraces, in short, the conflicting conclusions about women born of centuries of misogyny. The bride must be pure, and so is in need of protection. Her physical appearance is either her greatest asset, a prize that can only be claimed once the man has pledged his troth, or her greatest shame, which must be concealed from her husband-to-be until he has already bound himself to her. The bride's face at the altar (or, in my case, in the City Hall conference room) is a gift that must, almost literally, be unwrapped. She is an offering and it remains, until the very last moment, within the man's power to accept or reject her.
I am a feminist. I have my own bank account, into which I deposit money I earn. I find the cultural baggage the wedding veil drags behind it obviously repugnant. And yet I not only wanted to wear a veil, I forked over $150 at a bridal shop in New York City's garment district — where a friendly, only slightly pushy, saleswoman tried to upsell me a bedazzled Christening gown for my nonexistent child — so I could.
I met my husband eleven months to the day before we married. After the ceremony, we continued to live not merely in two separate apartments, but in two separate states, for months. Things were changing drastically, and yet in some ways, they seemed to be changing not at all. The wedding itself was a way to signal that there was indeed a yawning gap between my life as it had been and my life as it would be. I walked into City Hall an independent entity; I walked out legally bound to another human.
I took comfort in ritual and cliché: There would be a before and an after; the veil would wipe the slate clean.
The veil, then, was another way to draw a symbolic line — one perhaps more helpful because my husband and I were, in a way more unusual today than it has been in decades and centuries past, transforming our relationship by marrying. We had, for the entirety of our relationship, lived not merely in separate apartments, but in separate cities. For us, getting married — rather than moving in or having a baby together — was the step that signaled an end to lives lived separately. During the ceremony, beneath the veil, I was single, by which I literally mean one. But when, at ceremony's end, the veil was lifted, the person revealed was a spouse: one of two.
Symbolic acts function thanks not to the value that they accrue on their own, but to the belief with which we imbue them. I was not, before I married, completely independent of my husband. Nor did I, upon marrying him, become completely dependent on him. The civic codification of our marriage was intended as a reminder: that we wanted our lives to become ever more intertwined; that we meant to move together into the future; that we wanted it to be hard (not only emotionally, but also financially and bureaucratically) to dissolve our partnership. I had dated before; I'd had sex and been in love and introduced boyfriends to my parents. But I had never made so serious a promise to another person. I do not think I dishonor my love for my husband if I confess I worried about whether I could.
And so I took comfort in ritual and cliché: There would be a before and an after; the veil would wipe the slate clean; whatever mistakes the woman who donned this tulle had made, the woman who emerged from beneath it would make good.
And then, of course, the actual experience of getting married was so emotionally specific, so charmingly chaotic, that symbolism, in the end, mattered almost not at all. The veil, for one, wouldn't stay on. (I can't remember if we didn't have bobby pins on hand, or simply didn't think to use them; quite possibly, it was both.) Our justice of the peace pronounced her — honestly — moving marriage benediction in a Boston accent so strong it might have been piped in straight from the set of a Ben Affleck movie. (Even now, when I think of the ceremony itself, my first memory is of her long, nasal a's as she discussed our paahtnership and the haahrdships we might face.) My husband was, in the aftermath, so flustered that he accidentally left the envelope containing our marriage certificates on top of the car; the envelope flew off as we pulled away, and we drove over it.
Which is not to say that I regret the importance I placed on the veil, or the money I spent procuring one. For wanting it, buying it, and wearing it meant acknowledging my previous failures as a partner, meant believing in its magic. That it could, in a moment, turn me from someone whose past relationships had ended, into someone whose current relationship never would.