In Spain, when I was growing up in the 1950s, women wore mantillas to church. These were gorgeous embroidered affairs, white for unmarried girls and black for married women. Anchored by a hat pin, the mantillawas shaped like a rounded triangle, with the tip grazing the forehead and the two sides hanging down over the collar bones. Before the age of reason, which was held by the church to be seven, instead of mantillaslittle girls wore small round doilies on top of their head.
Some blame Saint Paul (“any woman who prays…with her head unveiled disgraces her head”), while others blame the early fathers of the church for making women wear veils in church. It is easy in retrospect to rage against Saint Paul and his cronies, who regarded head coverings as a mark of submission. At the time, however, we thought of the mantilla simply as a gender-related sign of respect: men had to uncover their heads, and we had to cover ours. Besides, with its scalloped edges framing the face, and the embroidered flowers and leaves both concealing and revealing the hair beneath, the mantilla made almost any woman look mysterious and alluring.
Nevertheless, we took the head-covering issue seriously. If a woman on her way back from the bakery wanted to stop for a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament but had left her mantilla at home, she could throw a scarf or even a sweater over her head. Otherwise, she had to skip the visit altogether (God, we were told, understood these things, and would look kindly upon her intention).
Another ostensible reason for the mantilla was to prevent the men of the congregation from being distracted by the lust-inducing sight of female hair. I found this odd, but then you never knew about men. It was their fault after all that, in addition to the mantilla, women had to wear stockings in church, and sleeves long enough to cover their elbows. Still, even granted their penchant for getting aroused by seemingly harmless objects, I figured that if I had been a man I would have found the elaborate, semi-transparent mantilla way more intriguing than a pair of braids or a head of permed curls.
When I arrived at my Catholic high school in Alabama, I saw that girls, though well past the age of reason, wore not mantillas but “chapel veils,” exactly like the little doily that I had cast aside in favor of the more grownup style after my First Communion. And it wasn’t just high school girls who wore these, but also the adult women who filled the pews with their husbands and kids on Sundays. Some ladies wore padded Alice bands with little stiff, dotted veils pulled down coyly over their noses. Others, having dashed into church on the spur of the moment, simply covered their head with a Kleenex, and secured it with a bobby pin.
I interpreted this nonchalant attitude towards head coverings as a sign of American progressivism, which I was all for. But I continued to wear my no-nonsense Spanish mantilla because I thought it more flattering than the doilies. And if it momentarily distracted from his prayers some hapless boy my age, well, so much the better.
As the fifties gave way to the sixties, those tiny chapel veils, perched atop the teased and sprayed, helmet-like hairdos of the time, looked more absurd than ever. By the end of the decade, what with the surging feminist movement and the liberalization of the church after Vatican II, chapel veils and emergency Kleenexes went the way of stockings and garter belts. But the disappearance of head coverings signaled a deeper exodus. Like many of my generation, I put away my missal and my mantilla, and left the church forever. Or so I thought.