It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed – the two bridesmaids were duly inferior – her father gave her away – her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated – her aunt tried to cry – and the service was impressively read by Dr. Grant.
– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Trying to trace the history of bridesmaids and the beginning of their existence is about as easy as tracing any other wedding tradition; between frustratingly unsourced statements and a tendency towards misty assertions like “For thousands of years, brides have …” when what’s really meant is “Every wedding I’ve heard of had this” it’s hard to say anything with complete confidence that it can’t be contradicted. The same is true of wedding veils; people obviously wore them, and still wear them, but there are gaps in the history which can’t be easily filled in. Interestingly, one of the few things about which we can be fairly certain is this: bridesmaids and bridal veils were originally intended to serve the same function, which was to protect the bride above all else.
Protect her from what? Some people say that if you go far back enough into prehistory, you’ll find that bridesmaids protected the bride from marriage-by-capture and the veil protected her either from being seen and noted as a possible target, or from being rejected by the groom before the wedding on account of her looks. Since these people are hypothesizing about societies which didn’t leave much in the way of written records, I’m inclined to take these ideas with a large dose of salt. However, there is a form of protection which the written record does much more to back up: protection from evil or jealous spirits.
In a lot of Western cultures, and quite a few Eastern ones, a woman on the eve of her wedding was thought to be peculiarly vulnerable to supernatural forces – she was about to make a transition from one state to another, and in the in-between time (where she was not quite a wife and yet not single by most standards) was a period when her spiritual defences would be low. Marriage wasn’t the only transition of this type, incidentally – in Scandinavian countries at least, pregnant women were regarded the same way during the Middle Ages and probably earlier; pregnancy was a time when one was particularly liable to be kidnapped by trolls or fairies. The result of this belief was that pregnant women were not supposed to go anywhere alone, which was probably just as well considering the sudden crises that pregnancy can bring.
But to return to the bridesmaids; as best as anyone can tell (which isn’t much of a “best”, unfortunately) bridesmaids began as what you might expect; girlfriends of the bride helping her out during the big transition. Even the simplest wedding required some food and alcohol to celebrate properly, after all – it wasn’t until last century that having a less elaborate wedding than you might have done was seen as a sign of good sense rather than miserliness or secret poverty. Somewhere along the line, someone had the bright idea that as an additional protection from jealous spirits, the bride should not only have her friends with her, but that they should all be dressed like the bride, so that the demons would get confused and presumably head back to Hell to look up another, less challenging victim. If this custom ever really got going, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t last very long; I’ve seen and read quite a few accounts of weddings over the last five centuries or so, and while many of them had attendants, both formal and informal, none were described as wearing exact copies of the bride’s dress. In fact, as anyone who’s cracked an etiquette book knows, that quickly became bad form rather than otherwise.
What bridesmaids eventually started to do again, about two hundred and fifty years ago, was to match each other. Maria Rushworth’s “duly inferior” bridesmaids are not described as being in matching outfits, but an account of Jane Austen’s niece’s wedding, by another niece, describes the two child attendants as being in matching white outfits, and at pictures of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter’s wedding, half a century later, you can see several bridesmaids behind the bride, who if not identically dressed (it’s hard to tell, since they’re kneeling), certainly look very, very similar. No Gilded Age society wedding was complete without a clutch of bridesmaids, from “name” families if possible, wearing identical dresses and, sometimes, their own veils. Similarly to bride’s gowns, bridesmaids’ dresses used to be styled according to whatever the current fashion was; in a way, it made for a more equalizing situation than we have now. If the bridesmaids, wearing cloche hats, short skirts, and bizarre trailing capes, looked bizarre to our eyes, chances are that the bride was right up there with them in the strangeness stakes. Now, as matching styles have become less of an issue, let’s just say that there has been an unfortunate divide developing.
The more regimented bridesmaids have become, the less notice has been taken of their original function. Protect the bride from an insistent future mother-in-law, or from having to put together 350 bags of pillow mints at 2 AM? Definitely. Protect her from kidnapping by jealous fairies? Not so much (though anyone in the throes of the six million and one little things demanded by a big white wedding might feel that the fairies might make for an entertaining change of pace). Oddly, nobody has ever proposed the idea that groomsmen, identically dressed to the groom, are thereby protecting the groom from abduction – although in Scandinavian and Celtic stories, grooms are as prone as brides to being lured into a fairy dance on the eve of their wedding and only returning a hundred years later or not at all.
Veils, too, have lost their original protective function. The earliest descriptions of veiled brides occur in the Old Testament and in Roman history; in the Old Testament there’s the famous story of Laban, who marries Leah to the unsuspecting Jacob in place of the younger Rachel, for whom Jacob had already “laboured seven years”. Due to Leah’s veil, he never suspected a thing until he was past the point of no return, and as returning Leah to the store was not an option, he ended up settling to have Rachel as his second wife after he had worked seven more years for her (presumably he managed to sneak a peek under the veil beforehand the second time around – once bitten, and all that). Veils have been used in Jewish weddings steadily ever since, but the precise meaning behind them is hard to ascertain; some sources say that they were an adaptation of Roman wedding veils, others say that they symbolized modesty, still others that they symbolized the bride’s complete faith in her husband – coming to him “blind”, so to speak. It’s worth noting that the ancient Jews seemed more prone to frightening demons away with fire than with symbolic clothing.
Ancient Romans, on the other hand, saw no problem with either fire or veils for keeping the demons away. The flammeum, the orange-coloured veil of a Roman bride, covered almost her entire body and was specifically meant to protect her from demons.
Among neither the Jews nor the Romans, nor among their medieval successors, was the veil specifically tied to the idea of virginity. Modesty and chastity, certainly, but not virginity, as women of all ages and stations wore them. The expression “taking the veil” would develop later on for nuns, who of course take a vow of chastity, but nuns’ clothing is based on what was current fashion at the high-water mark of religious life. In most medieval societies, a head covering of some sort was absolutely necessary for a woman, except – in an ironic twist – on her wedding day.
In Christian society, the wedding veil seems to have fallen into abeyance during the middle ages. Not that brides could not wear them, but they were not seen as especially powerful symbols; the bride had worn a wimple or a veil before her wedding, and she’d wear one afterward, so what was the big deal? The true symbol of the wedding – and the one which really did signify virginity – was loose hair. The really bridal look in those days was a token head covering and hair left completely undone.
So, what was the token head covering? In many cases, it was a crown. Crowns have come back – bridal tiaras are sold everywhere and a number of scholarly books (more on those later) feature authors who wring their hands over modern women who have degraded themselves by playing along with the new “princess fantasy” as if tiaras were invented by Disney. Except it’s not new at all – crowns have been part of weddings for centuries, and sometimes – here’s something really different – the grooms got to wear them, as well! (If they happen to be Orthodox or Eastern Catholic, they still can).
Crowns are as frustrating as veils when it come to the real meaning behind them (if there is one meaning – they must have accrued them as time went on) but the basic divide seems to work like this: if the crown was worn by the bride only (Northern Europe) it had a stronger redolence of “the crown of virginity”; if it was worn by both parties (Southern Europe, Orthodox and Eastern Catholics these days) the symbolism was divided between the heavenly crowns which, it was hoped, the couple would someday wear, and the fact that the bride and groom are becoming “king and queen” of a new household. In neither case do crowns seem to have had the protective symbolism that veils do; a veil-less medieval bride, with a crown and loose hair, presumably relied on her bridesmaids to protect her.
Not a lot of people believe in bride-kidnapping demons around here, and veils and bridesmaids have ceased to symbolize anything except “wedding”, but I think the protective idea has something to be said for it. Being engaged is a particularly frazzling time, even if you’re not being harried by the supernatural; you’re contemplating an enormous step which, even if it’s less legally irrevocable than it used to be, will make a permanent change in you. Between the rush of preparations and last-minute queasiness about whether this is, in fact, the right thing to be doing, it’s no wonder that brides felt, and feel, vulnerable. The veil might not comfort them as much as it used to, but the bridesmaids can still help to put them on a more even keel. All hail tradition.
-posted by sonetka