The big news out of President Trump’s visit to the Vatican this week had nothing to do with international policy. Instead people were bemused and entertained by the attire of First Lady, Melania, and First Daughter, Ivanka, who appeared dressed in black long sleeved dresses topped with black veils. As more than one online commentator inappropriately remarked, Melania looked like she was ‘dressing for the job she wants.’ A Widow.
The truth of the matter is that Melania and Ivanka were following established Vatican diplomatic protocol. Women usually wear black clothing, closed-toe shoes, and head coverings. These protocols, while traditional, are often ignored by those visiting the Pontiff, but were followed by Michelle Obama when she visited the Vatican in July 2009.
But the attention that the First Family received does raise the question: why does the Catholic Church require that women cover their heads at all?
The specific kind of veil worn by Melania Trump, a Mantilla, originated in Spain in the 16th century. While you might see women covering their heads in churches today, they would ordinarily be brides or older women. Head coverings dropped out of everyday practice from the 1950s onwards.
As you might expect, though, the custom is much older than the 16th century and goes all the way back to the Bible. In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that, unlike men, women should veil themselves when they pray or prophesy. If they don’t, he says, “should cut off [their] hair.” He then continues by saying that men do not have to veil themselves because they are the image and reflection of God, whereas women was made out of man. (This is a reference to the Adam and Eve story in which Eve is made out of one of Adam’s ribs). Having grounded his argument for male superiority in Genesis, Paul “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”
Clear? Not so far, eh?
The key is Paul’s reference to angels. Some scholars think that Paul is referring to a different story in Genesis, the events that precipitated the Flood. In Genesis 6:1-4 a group known as “the sons of God” see the daughters of men and notice how attractive they are. They decide to “take wives for themselves” and these women gave birth to the Nephilim. And this is where tall people came from. This story, which unsurprisingly has dropped out of Sunday School renditions of the Bible, inspired its own ancient fan fiction. Later traditions refer to the “sons of God” as the “Watchers” and ascribes to them as a kind of angel that, having disobeyed God, has been chained up for all eternity at the edge of the world.
What has this to do with veiling? Well when the sons of God were in heaven eyeing up the good-looking human women, they were looking at the tops of their heads. It only makes sense, therefore that angels are attracted to pretty hair (which is, incidentally, one explanation for why Paul thinks that women don’t have to veil themselves if they cut their hair). So if you’re female and doing something that might get the attention of beings in heaven, like, say, praying, Paul thinks you should veil yourself to prevent yourself from attracting the wrong kind of supernatural attention.
All of which would mean that Paul is holding women accountable for men’s sexual responses even when those men are divine beings.
Even if the idea of veiling oneself to avoid drawing unwarranted attention from angels is all Paul, veiling was a common practice in the ancient world.. As classical archeologist Dr. Mary Jane Cuyler told the The Daily Beast that “veils were a crucial part of ritual costume;” brides wore a veil called a flammeum (the color of flames) and the priested of Jupiter wore the same kind of veil where she made sacrifices. Although, as Cuyler told me, “we do not know whether the ritual veiling of women had any influence on Paul.”
Ancient Jewish women also veiled themselves but the practice was not gender specific. As Dr. Steven Fine, Churgin Professor at Yeshiva University, told me, “Modesty in dress, action and thought have been essential elements of the Jewish ethos since biblical times. Head covering for pious men and women has often been an important sign of a life of modesty.” Jewish practice, however, shifted with time and space. “Where other kinds of hats have been common,” Fine added, “married Jewish women often wore (and wear) whatever is fashionable.” To this day among many married Orthodox women, head coverings are “a sign of parity, with both husband and wife covering their heads”
The particular significance and religious explanation of veiling aside, we might wonder why do so many groups require head coverings at all. Jon Marks, Professor anthropology at UNC-Charlotte, suggested to me that while covering one’s head and face can communicate piety and modesty, “in a patriarchal society it might communicate anonymity.” In many societies it might signal a liminal social status as well as membership in a particular class. The “point is,” said Marks, “the human body is always a semiotic object,” which is to say that social expectations about dress shape it in a very particular way. In a Western World in which veiling is no longer expected of Catholic women in churches, black dresses and veils scan more as the garb of mourning. All of which explains why some people looked at Melania Trump and were able to make the joke ‘widow.’
If there was something inappropriate about the Trump family’s attire it was that Francis cares less for finery than he does actions. But if you want to criticize the Trumps for wearing head coverings, then we also have to reconsider bridal veils.