Friday, 23 May 2014

Beneath the Veil: A Headcovering Series

I have a not-so-secret obsession.  I'm fascinated with head coverings in all their manifestations.  It's a natural result of my eclectic tastes in fashion, an interest in different cultures and world travel, and my devotion to a particular and, as the world regards it, old-fashioned religion . . . the Catholic Church.

Head coverings worn out-of-doors as the societal norm, for men and women, were common right up into the 20th century.  My great-grandfather, whom I called Papa, never left the house without donning his favorite hat.  Even if it was only to pop over to the neighbors' or go down to the corner store for a candy bar.  We still have that hat.  To this day, it carries the faint scent of his cologne.

My best guess is that head coverings emerged thousands of years ago to serve the same function as other clothing, i.e. protection from the elements.  But people got creative, as people will do. Wherever there is a need for something practical, it seems, mankind is determined that it should also be beautiful.  It's what separates us from the animals.  Thus, all sorts of forms and methods of hair-covering emerged, from the simple and elegant to the elaborate and foppish.  Shelter and fashion.  Ingenuity and creativity.

The third mark of humanity is meaning.  Headcovering is inseparable from modesty and reverence in many traditions, and in varying degrees.  Some people see covering the head or hair as controversial, even demeaning, others as liberating.  Some don't have an opinion either way.

Not a popular opinion there, Saint Thomas.

My first experience with headcovering was as a little girl admiring wedding dresses and imitating the look with a veil of my own for First Communion.  I often also wore a hat to church, especially at Easter.  We lived in suburban Ohio, and the people there were pretty homogeneous.  I could count the number of black classmates I had on one hand.  Hispanics were even less.  In sixth grade, the opening page of our history unit in the text book showed the famous page of peasants shearing the wheat in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.  Both the men and women had their heads covered.  I became interested in the middle ages and their style of dress.  In that same class, I first learned about Islam, which also fascinated me.

Fast forward years and years later.  I was studying abroad in Rome in 2005 and within walking distance of San Pietro to able to attend the papal audiences on Wednesdays.  I noticed that people--especially the old Italian women--put napkins on their heads when the Pope came out on the balcony.  Yes, I remember thinking that . . . napkins.  I'm not sure when I put two and two together; if it was some residual inherited cradle Catholic memory, something I'd been taught along the way, or something I picked up later; but by the time I graduated college in 2007, I was rearing to get my hands on a veil of my own.  This was perfect timing, as Pope Benedict had just granted permission to parish priests to celebrate the Latin Rite without seeking special permission from their bishops.

In 2008, I enrolled for my Master's degree in Bangor, Wales, and since I hadn't left home as an undergrad, this was my first real experience in the university lifestyle.  Bangor was much more culturally diverse, with lots of East Asian and Middle Eastern students.  The hijabis (plural?) stood out, of course, but it was the bohemian, artsy atmosphere of that city that made me wrap up my head in a black scarf and walk out of the dorm room confidently.

My favorite scarf tied in the duchess style.

Meanwhile, I was wearing a veil to Mass, and when my sister-in-law gave me a pretty bonnet she couldn't wear any more after she got her hair cut, I started wearing that to Mass, too.  Because I knew from my humanities classes, leisurely afternoons in art museums, and internet wanderings that throughout the ages, the type of head coverings women wore changed.  And it wasn't that women went out of their way to cover their heads during Mass, but that it was a way of life, to have something to cover with when the occasion called for it--whether it was during bad weather, when in the company of someone important, during worship, or as their stations in life changed.  And this of course, was only a small part of a larger interest and passion that had been growing and gaining strength in me since I was a little child . . . the fact that medieval European life hinged on the seasons and the liturgical year, clicking together like two intertwined gears.

Being back in Wales and near my favorite clothing shops has refreshed my interest in head covering, outside of Mass.  People are more diverse in their clothing tastes, even in Colwyn Bay (which is not a college town and far from diverse).  I feel I could walk more easily with my head wrapped in a scarf than I could in central Florida.  And practically speaking, without sweating out all my fluids!

I like the way pretty scarves look wrapped around my head.  I like that they're old-fashioned and peasant-y and old-world Catholic.  I like that it's an easy way to deal with a bad hair day and hide the frizz.  But I also like the idea of headcovering as a calling, a devotion.  I like that it's meant to show reverence in the presence of the Holy of Holies, at Mass.  I like that it marks the wearer almost, as one set apart, the old meaning of the word anathema; the way we walk around with cross smudges on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

So.  I don't think I'll ever become a full-time covered woman.  First of all, my faith (and culture) doesn't deem it necessary.  Second, my intentions are tainted by vanity.  Thirdly, you have to walk before you can run, and you have to crawl before you can walk.  I don't wear skirts full-time, and I'm all about the sleeveless tank top in mid-summer Florida heat.  Last, if I were to pursue all my whims and interests, I'd be dressed like a Japanese doll having a tea party.

Hanbok + mantilla = Christie's name all over it.

But that doesn't mean I can't learn more, or live vicariously through other people.  So I've asked a few friends and acquaintances if they'd like to guest post over the next few weeks about their particular headcovering traditions, and I invite you join in the conversation.  If you, or someone you know, covers, full- or part-time, and would be interested in guest posting or doing an interview for the series, please have them get in touch with me: GreenInkling at gmail dot com.

1 comment:

  1. Coming from a culture where both male and female head covering is accepted and expected, I'm really looking forward to posts in this series! I posted briefly on the topic in my 31 days in the Jewish quarter series.


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