While in modern times, a bride's veil is often merely an accessory to the traditional white or cream bridal costume, it has along history. It symbolizes different things in different times and cultures, but it is generally designed to hide the bride's face. Sometimes, the groom did not get to see the bride before they were wed, while in other cultures, it symbolizes that only the groom should see the bride's face. A veil could also be used to protect the bride from evil spirits, to symbolize the transition from maidenhood to married life, or to show respect and modesty before God.
A veil may be worn over the face during a portion of the marriage ceremony, and it is then lifted up discretely by the groom after the ceremony for the first kiss of the marriage. The veil does not always cover the face, however, in many modern weddings — it simply covers the head and a portion of the back of the head. Veils can be long and elaborate affairs, or quite short and simple.
Ancient Greece and Rome often used a veil to specifically conceal the bride’s appearance. Since most marriages were arranged, the groom might not see the bride until the wedding day and, as crass as it sounds, families didn’t want a potential spouse rejected if the groom did not find the looks of the bride appealing. As a result, the bride's veil was a concealing device, and was frequently not white. Red veils tended to be popular in Ancient Greece, while in Rome, yellow veils were often the color of choice.
Some also date the tradition of veiling the bride to the Norse and to other cultures where women were essentially kidnapped and married to their kidnappers. A blanket might be thrown over the head of the woman, in a rough precursor to the bride's veil. This often secured and subdued the captured woman.
Quite against the custom of many other groups, a Jewish wedding may include a ceremonial veiling of the bride by the groom. This can symbolize the groom’s respect for the bride without regard to her beauty. It can also be seen as a form of possession: the bride’s looks are for the groom alone, and therefore should be veiled.
In Middle Eastern cultures, women may be veiled in the company of men. A veil is necessary for modesty, as a result, and its removal is for the husband only. Only the bride’s family and husband are allowed to see the woman unveiled. Many modern Middle Eastern women do not don a veil, but in some, being seen without the veil is considered a crime, or at the least quite inappropriate.
The custom was one frequently adopted in the Middle Ages in most of Europe. Often, this custom was linked to superstition and the bride's veil protected her from evil curses or spirits. There is also a superstition that it is simply bad luck to for a groom to see a bride before the wedding. In some beliefs, even a bride should not see herself in full costume until the day of the wedding. The veil is not tried on with the dress, and it is put on at the last possible moment before the wedding.
The wedding veil has also come to represent the woman's transition from the pure and virginal state to the married state, and many modern and past cultures feel virginity prior to marriage is ideal. The white bridal costume, along with the veil, symbolizes this virginity. The veil can also be seen as a symbolic representation of the hymen, a membrane that is broken during a woman's first sexual intercourse experience. A groom lifting the bride's veil, therefore, takes on a rather bold reference to the sexual act that will consummate the marriage.
Until recently, it was inappropriate to not cover the head in many churches. As a result, brides either wore a hat or a veil in order to show modesty and respect to God. Some women in more conservative churches may wear the veil more for this symbol of respect than for any other significance.
Many feminists argue that the veil is a continued representation of women's subjugation to man. It implies the husband owns the wife and is, therefore, distasteful. To them, veiling may be seen as a man’s rule, forced upon women. A modern bride may reject the veil if she equates it with man's oppression of women.
On the other hand, the floating gauze, lace, silk, net, or taffeta, is often considered quite beautiful. Many women chose to wear a veil simply because it is pretty. Whatever symbolism it may have held in the past may be less important to some women than its attractive qualities.