Wedding veils hold an especially distinctive yet intimate place in a family's collective memory. Even more than the wedding gown, the family bridal veil has, historically, been the treasure most often passed down and shared with daughters and granddaughters, nieces and cousins.
That was the case with a certain heirloom veil with a most captivating provenance. First worn by Margaret Merritt as an Edwardian bride when she married James Thomas Lee of New York City in 1903, her cathedral-length, rose point lace veil was also worn by her daughters Marion Lee Ryan, Janet Lee Bouvier and Winifred Lee D'Olier. But this veil developed a particular mystique when her granddaughter Jacqueline Bouvier wore it, along with Margaret's delicate wreath of wax orange blossoms, for her marriage to Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953.
I became intrigued by this veil's lineage when I learned it was to go on a first-ever display early this year as part of the wedding costume exhibitions on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. The veil's connection with the Vanderbilt family is through Jackie Kennedy's cousin, Mary Lee Ryan --"Mimi" wore it when she married George Vanderbilt's grandson, William Amherst Cecil, in 1957.
Jackie's only daughter Caroline Kennedy didn't wear the Lee family veil, but both Mimi's daughter and daughter-in-law wore it with their 1980s Diana-era "princess gowns." I find this is part of the beauty and pleasure of a bridal veil: as fashions change, it can be adapted to wear in various stylish ways; and even as women and their roles change, because of its strong feminine impulse, the bridal veil always carries a precious tradition.
Lace was immensely fashionable for Victorian and Edwardian ladies and, indeed, de rigueur for brides during these gilded decades. Following the creation of "rose point" lace in Brussels in the mid-19th century -- a type of point de gaze needle lace so named because of its lyrical rose design, often with raised petals -- this romantic pattern became a favorite of brides. Therefore when well-to-do American women made their grand transatlantic voyages to Europe on the most majestic luxury liner of the day (it was simply the thing to do!), high on their must-do list was to bring back a lace veil from Belgium -- all with dreams of a wedding in mind. (Is that how the lovely rose point veil worn by the Lee family brides -- and then the Cecils of North Carolina -- began its notable pedigree?)
Later when lace was not as popular and travel to Europe was aboard airplanes instead of ships, bringing home a lace wedding veil stayed dear to the hearts of many American women. Perhaps there is one stored away in your family's "treasure chest"?
[NOTE: Hear more behind-the-scenes stories about brides and their costumes from Jane Austen to Downton Abbey, from Cornelia Vanderbilt to Jacqueline Kennedy at the "Tea & Flowers & Costumes" special event at Biltmore this spring!]