Head covering, a timeless practice, a thing of the past, a thing of the present.
Yes, many of us only wear hats in winter if that, and only a few where scarves anymore. Countless of us probably only associate head coverings with Islam, viewing them as means of forcing women into subjection. Do we realize that this practice is ancient, dating back to some of the earliest societies? With some of the most varied backgrounds? Even more varied then its backgrounds however, have been its purposes, distinction of social status, oppression, fashion statements, humility, sacrifice, and obedience. It has been practiced throughout the centuries and upheld through the passing of time, why then do we not see it anymore in the West? What is this strange practice and what exactly is the history behind it?
In ancient times head coverings were a part of culture and tradition, it is reported that in ancient Assyria if a man wished to marry his concubine he would proclaim, “She is my wife.” as he put a head covering on her in front of 6 witnesses. A 13th century B.C. Assyrian text states that veiling was reserved only for women of the aristocracy and forbidden for prostitutes and those of lower social status. It was also mentioned in the Old Testament in the book of Isiah where God is using the parable of a once noble lady meeting her shame Isaiah 47:1-2 Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers.
While the ancient Iranian Sassonoids used a veil as a symbol of subjection others cultures used it differently, in fact in early Jewish societies hair was known as a sign of beauty but, only as a private asset, not to be viewed in public. Married women were required to cover theirs. When the Muslims came to Arabia, they continued with the tradition of head covering and wove it into their beliefs, while it seemed to be used as a restriction this period of history shows women granted more freedom. Ancient Greek and Roman women of the upper class also covered their heads. Early Christians of the Roman church actually considered women’s hair an intrusion of materiality into the holy church and banned its appearance there. The apostle Paul writes in the 1 book of Corinthians and uses chapter 11 to support this issue.
Middle Ages to 1600’s;
During the middle ages the Roman Catholic Church decreed that women must cover their heads. The elaborate headdresses of that time are often what people remember when thinking of the era (the famous princess cone for example). The popular pieces which covered the head and neck such as wimples wore worn in Europe from the late 12th century until the early 14th. Later as the time passed some women like the puritans and separatists sought a simpler and humbler style and wore their hair pinned up under closefitting coifs.
In the 1700’s most women wore linen caps for decency but also for practicality, caps ranged in size from little pieces of lace to huge fancy hood like creations, generally the more hair one covered the more conservative they were. Nonetheless the 1800th cap served multiple purposes; Caps kept a women’s hair clean from dirt, smoke and other daily grime, not to mention if one doesn’t touch their hair as much it is less oily. Surprisingly, the cap was also healthful, by keeping their hair pinned up under a cap, women were less likely to have their hands by their face which could reduce eye and skin infections and in dirtier conditions it would stop the little bugs from hopping from one person to a next. It also kept hair from getting split ends and damaged as quickly, which was important in a time without conditioner. Hats and caps also became a bit of a fashion accessory making the perfect completion to an outfit, but most important point to touch on is the religious. Most of the western world was Christian or Jewish and covering hair in public was once a very important part of these beliefs. Sadly, however not all women in the 1700’s covered their hair as a part of their faith, in the American state of Louisiana in 1786 a law was instituted forcing African women to wrap their head to differentiate between them and white women. Still the 1700’s saw much of caps both outdoors and indoors, most women would put a hat over their caps when going outside, both of which would help hold the sun’s rays away from their fair complexions.
The early 19th century saw the continuation of caps and interestingly enough the popularization of turbans, slowly being overtaken by bonnets and hats once more, in the regency period headdresses outdoors was a most. A married woman or a spinster would wear a cap indoors as well, and when going outdoors would likely put a bonnet over her cap. Aside from protecting delicate skin and hair, the cap could also keep one’s head protected in drafty rooms. As before types of headdresses took to show class, status, fashion sense and marital state. Head covering continued to mean a sign of respect and were worn by women inside churches. As time progressed bonnets remained popular with hats slowly gaining in use during the latter part of the century, different materials became popular such as felt. The overriding part of this slow progression was the fact that bonnets and hats began to cover less of the hair and these head coverings became more of a fashion statement and were not really worn indoors anymore. However, the practice of hats and importance of head covers continued with strength into the turn of the century.
The 1900’s began with the Edwardian Era in England which brought huge hats and veils, strange that such loud and noticeable head coverings would be worn at the beginning of a century that would end without them. In 1917 the Catholic church required women to wear head coverings. The 1920’s continued with the popular deep hats and turbans, and from articles we find that at this time hats were still considered necessary. In a newspaper article from that time a story reports how a woman left her house to put a letter in her mailbox at her garden gate without her hat and gloves. Apparently, she was spotted by a neighbor and reported. For that decade, the following, and up through the first half of the 1900’s women were expected to at least keep the tops of their heads covered. Changes became evident around World War 1 when skirts became shorter and women’s head coverings outside of church were no longer considered a necessity. During World War II women donned turbans, scarves and hats once again to protect their hair as they worked to fill the vacancies left by the men. Hats were still considered important especially in church well up to the 60’s but were more an accessory then a necessary piece outside. As youth culture took over the decade hats became a practice of the past and by the 70’s had almost completely disappeared even in churches.
We see that head covers of the west have all but vanished. Why is this important then? Why do we need to know our history? Although many in the west have bade ado to this practice there is a growing group of women that has been turning to the exercise of their ancestors. Amish, Mennonite, and other similar religious groups continue to practice head covering, and countless in the east continue this forgotten art. A small community of Christian women have been following God’s call and reawakening the practice of head covering in their own lives, Catholic and Jewish women as well. Even in the east Muslim women who are not required to wear a hijab have been donning their own.
Yes, head covering has wand its way through time, a tradition that goes back to early history and through to the modern age. It’s styles and motives have changed but in Christendom it continues bringing with it a symbol of modesty, humility, and godly submission. while many may have forgotten this practice, some have not and will carry this beautiful calling through their lives.
Head covering continues in the shining pages of History and through to modern practice.
What makes head covering so timeless? What makes it so intriguing? The answer is the opposite to what many suppose. For those of us who do not wear it out of force, it’s liberty, liberty as a woman to not be judged so quickly by our looks and appearance but by who we truly are, liberty to let our personality and soul show. To follow a calling and in sacrificing our will, we find renewed freedom and power to worship the Lord who created us to be exactly who we are.
Din, Alina. “Evolution of Head Covering In Christianity.” Haute Hijab. March 20, 2018
Amer, Sarah. What is Veiling. Edinburgh University Press, Sep 9, 2014
Aghajanian, Liana. “The Complicated History of Headscarves.” Racked. December 20, 2016
Brooks, Rebecca. “What did Pilgrims Wear?” History of Massachusetts Blog. July 22, 2018
Land of the brave .info
Debbie and Oscar. “Victorian Hat History/Bonnets, Hats, Caps 1830-1890.” Vintage Dancer. May 25, 2018.
Sanbanburn Vic. “Bonnets, Caps, Turbans, and Hats: Fashion Necessities for Regency Ladies.” Jane Austen’s World. February 22, 2008
Holmes, Tao Tao. “When Going Out Without A Hat Was Grounds for Scandal.” Atlas Obscura. March 21, 2016
Walford/Kickshaw Jonathan. “History of Hats for Women.” Vintage Fashion Guild. March 19, 2012.
Maija. “18th century Headwear.” Couture Mayah. 2012
Hope, Gail. “How to make an 18th Century Cap.” Art, Beauty, and Well-Ordered Chaos. May 18, 2009.
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