The day is approaching when even the most sensible, balanced Catholic mother (I'd like to think that's me) starts to get a little fevered: the day of her little girl's First Communion.
For the non-Catholics among the Opinionated Readership, take a quick consult on Wikipedia's pretty much on-target article on First Communion. Then check out the merchandising. There, that should give you an idea. Did you think the Catholic Eucharist was about transubstantiation, going to confession, experiencing mystical union with Christ? Silly you. The Eucharist, perhaps; but First Communion is about the dress, the veil and gloves and shoes, the party, the gear (rosary, check; prayer book, check; scapular medal--do we do that in this parish?), and the photographs.
Why does Father start to hyperventilate when you ask if your Uncle Fred can bring his video camera up into the choir loft? Why did mothers of the parish nearly riot the year they learned that the parochial school kids would be receiving at a (photogenic) prie-dieu*, but the CCD kids would have to stand to receive? Why do the boys' parents just hear "suit and tie," but the girls' mothers are given a sternly-worded handout about requirements for dresses? Because it's almost spring, and it's time for First Communion, and the Mothers are preparing their little girls for the event of their childhoods.
*A prie-dieu is this:
First Communion Madness is why the Opinionated Homeschooler is already obsessing on the details of an event that will not take place until spring. Come, obsess with me.
Offspring #1 had a beautiful dress, hand-made by a family friend, that happens to fit #2 very well (she's taller, but thinner for her height, so instead of ankle-length it goes partway up the shin). Violating my usual rule about not posting pictures of the Offspringen, here's a pic of #1 in all her adorableness. Doesn't she look pious? Hard to believe it's the same child who slouches around the house now in the throes of adolescence.
As you can see, instead of a veil she has a beaded fabric coronet, of the same brocaded material as the dress. But Offspring #2 wants a proper veil, so off I went in search.
The first thing I discovered is that all First Communion veils today look alike. There are basically three kinds: plastic comb with plain netting; plastic headband with plain netting; and plastic tiara with plain netting. Bows, flowers, rhinestones, and/or plastic pearls are glued onto the plastic headpiece.
Not that they aren't cute, but the cheap ones ($15-20) look ... cheap ... and even the pricey ones ($50-$90, I kid you not, for a piece of plastic--did I mention it was plastic?--with a short polyester net hanging down) still often look like dress-up clothes for some little girl who wanted to be a princess bride for Halloween. And there just isn't anything beyond those three basic styles.
The next thing I discovered, as noted above, was the insane cost. Even the low end is high for what you get, and only in a society in which almost no one sews (sure wish I did), and in which children actually get a say in purchasing pricey items with their parents' money (that's the only way I can conceive that the rhinestone tiaras got so popular), could the plastic glittery fairy Disney Princess look appear with such a high price tag.
Depressed, I searched around for other options, and discovered a treasure trove of old photos of girls at their First Communions. There are hundreds, thousands of them out there. Which makes sense; it's been a photo-heavy event since cameras were invented. If a Catholic girl in the last hundred years had no other photo ever taken of her, she had a First Communion picture taken. There's an amazing variation in dress and veil styles, partly because of variations in time, place, and custom (especially the move away from Catholic girls covering their heads at Mass), but also because until about twenty years ago, First Communion dresses and veils were sewn by mothers and passed down to younger girls in the family.
Today, dresses and veils for First Communion are factory manufactured, bought off the rack, and so limited to the most popular styles. The materials tend to be cheaper, and since labor costs are the big markup for clothing, there's much less in the way of decorative stitching, embroidery, lining, or other extras. Not being any hand with a sewing machine myself, at last I was convinced that I would have to search eBay for "vintage first communion veil" until I found a non-plastic, non-princess, hand-made veil. But there are so many decades, with so many changing fashions. Which style to search for?
Let's start out about 100 years ago, before Pope Pius V issued Quam Primum (1910), which, in an effort to combat Jansenism (short take: a rigorist quasi-heretical tendency that, among other things, emphasized the need to have a detailed intellectual comprehension of the doctrines of the Faith before one could be a full Communicant in the Church), lowered the age of First Communion from 12-14 to the "Age of Reason," about seven years old.
The photo to the left shows a German-American girl from just after the turn of the century, who would have been twelve or a little older. Check out the elaborate headpiece for the veil. The darker material isn't a hairdo--girls at that time wouldn't have been exposing more than the hair just above the forehead at Mass--and I think must be colored fabric flowers.
Note some other things. The veil is doubled--this seems to have been standard until very recently--and reaches almost to the hem of her dress. Other photos from this era have veils down below the hem, even to the heels, in a bridal style. She is wearing dark leather ankle boots and dark stockings rather than the now-universal white shoes and tights; this is common, though not universal, in photos from around the turn of the century.
Finally, notice that this is a professionally done photo taken in a studio. All early First Communion photos were taken outside the church building, for the straightforward reason that, until the mid-20th century, Catholic churches were very dark by modern standards, or even by the standard of Protestant churches at the time (which tended to have more windows of clear glass). You just can't take a good photo by candlelight. Sure looks like the concept of spending lots of money on your daughter's First Communion had an early start.
Here are a couple more great old photos from early in the century, a French girl to the right, and a Czech girl to the lower left. Note again the long veils and elaborate, hand-made headpieces, in differing styles according to the local custom. Both girls look like they are 12 or so, an estimate borne out by the pre-1910 styles of their dresses and veils. The Czech girl, who bears a startling resemblance to Ozma of Oz, has quite the veil, and a dress and pose that suggest the Czechs were somewhat less rigorist in their Catholicism than the notoriously Jansenist French.
While I think all three of these veils are far more interesting than the modern commercial veils, still, they're just a little much for a hundred years later. The day of really big headgear as a standard form of couture for women has gone.
But if I had to draw from the distant past, I'd take the Czech look. Maybe it's just the way she carries it off.
Moving forward, here's a girl from a 1918 photo (right). Her veil has no ornate headpiece, apart from the bow tied under her chin, and more resembles a mantilla than a bridal veil. The bow seems to have been a favorite decoration for little girls of that era: I've got photos of my dear departed grandmother, topped by a bow that looks like it would carry her off if there were a brisk wind.
Still, minus the bow, this would be a possible style today, due to its simplicity. And so I've kept "mantilla" included as a search term, especially since the style has been in continuous favor in Latin America and the American southwest throughout the century, really until the 1970's and the advent of the non-head-covering veil (but more on that later), and so it should be possible to find examples that aren't too antique to be usable.
From the following year, 1919 (left), a veil with a headpiece from the other end of the fussiness spectrum. It's hard to tell from the darkness of the background, but there seems to be some sort of foliage crown, with net (tulle?) blossoms on top. The whole thing looks quite big for such a little girl, and one almost wonders if this started life as a mother's or aunt's bridal veil. Though the photo was taken on the cusp of the 1920's, it seem to belong to a period almost 20 years previous.
Moving into the Roaring '20's, there is a sudden uniformity of headpiece styles. I couldn't find any of the wild variety of style of the previous decades, all of them instead copying the '20's-style rounded "flapper" hat, covering most of the head except the face. See the little girl in the prie-dieu, above, who seems to have the flapper "bob" as well as the hat.
Here's another from the mid-'20's, with dress to match the decade. (More on dresses later, too.)
I don't think the flapper look is a historical style that can be easily resurrected, and I don't plan to try, though I did see a couple of these available. Besides being strongly dated to one particular era, though, they generally haven't aged well, and I doubt any kind of cleaning could bring back their original white.
Forward, to the 1940's and '50's, when the dominant style was a more subdued floral coronet, with doubled veil (still long, but shorter than in the past). Dresses were shorter also, and stockings were often replaced by socks. In the photo to the left, from 1947, you can again see the influence of ladies' hat styles, and almost see the pillbox hat on its way.
Some time in the 1950's there became popular an odd sort of stiff tulle crown arrangement, making a kind of vertical halo across the head from ear to ear. Where this came from is a mystery: the headpieces of the previous decades seemed to take their cue from the ladies' hats in fashion, but I'm pretty sure there wasn't anything in the '50's and '60's that could be responsible for this look.
The attached veils were quite short, often single instead of the traditional double veil (almost certainly a holdover from the bridal symbolism of a veil in front of the face that has been lifted back over the head), and lacking any ornamentation on the veil itself other than a thin pencil edge, or even no finish at all. These begin to dominate in mid-century, and by the 1960's there doesn't seem to be anything else (except for Hispanic girls, who were still wearing the mantilla style).
I can't help finding this style unattractive, and unfortunately it was replaced not by a nicer kind of headgear, but by almost no headgear at all: the wearing of hats, mantillas, and chapel veils vanished almost overnight from mainstream Catholic culture. Only the symbolism of the veil remained, and the meaning of it--covering the head at church, as was the custom among Christian women and girls for almost two thousand years--had gone. A short piece of netting, usually unadorned, was held in place almost invisibly by a comb, or by a tiara or coronet (with the veil attached to the back or absent completely, leaving the head uncovered (as with Offspring #1 in the photo above), instead of to the front, as with the coronet style of the 1940's and '50's). The hairstyle became of increased importance accordingly.
So it seemed that I was going to have to find a veil at least fifty years old, if I wanted something pretty for Offspring #2. And that's why eBay exists. So that every American can exercise her inalienable right to find, and bid feverishly on, a 1950's Vintage Veil Headpiece First Communion Catholic (to use the odd titling method of eBay sellers). And behold:
From 1959 (according to the woman whose it originally was), the last gasp of the floral coronet style, with doubled long veil, embroidered edging, and an embroidered cross with silver threadwork. Less than twenty bucks. I'm going to have to have it dry-cleaned, and the thin elastic that goes under the chin is certainly dead and will need to be replaced, but it will still be a bargain. My work as a First Communion mother is underway.
A historical footnote
There is a stratum of First Communion photographs from the Second World War, in which the girls are not Catholic, and are not making their First Communion. Catholic families taking in Jewish girls to hide would have First Communion photos made as evidence that the girls were really Catholic, and many of these photos have been preserved as part of the archives of the Holocaust.
How well the ruse worked is questionable--in most of the photographs, the girls look considerably older than the usual seven years old--but maybe there was enough variation in the age of First Communion to make it plausible. To the right is one such photo, of a girl who is visibly the least happy of any of the photo subjects I've posted here. The story with the photo says that she survived the war, stayed with the family who took her in, and now lives in Israel.
Next: The Dresses and The Other Necessary Gear