The Catholic Weekly spoke to four Sydney women about what led them to embracing more traditional styles of dress and encouraging others who wish to do the same.
A parishioner of St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Bondi, and St Joseph’s Maronite Catholic at Croydon, Helen is undertaking a Masters degree in education and says she became intrigued by the concept of feminine beauty around two years ago.
On social media she shares reflections, prayers, news and photos of women in long, billowing dresses with nearly 1300 followers to date.
“It was through that term ‘modesty’ which is sometimes thrown around in Catholic circles but I wasn’t sure what that meant, I thought it was reserved for somebody entering religious life and not your ordinary churchgoers,” she said.
“I started looking into writings of St John Paul II especially his ideas about the feminine genius and calling women to find their own feminine genius. At first I was obsessed with thinking about the ‘rules’, what skirt length I should wear and those kinds of things.
“The more I took it to prayer and read what the saints and the Church had to say about the virtues and particularly the virtue of modesty I came to a better understanding that modesty is reflected in physical appearance but it requires an internal disposition.
“It’s closely related to other virtues such as humility which counteracts the vice of pride.
“There’s no point saying I dress modestly so I’m better than someone else, that kind of thinking defeats the whole purpose. Virtue needs to be lived out in our actions and our physical appearance, what we wear, is just one aspect of it.
“Women today are confronted with extreme sexualisation of women, of the body, and there is a bit of looking to a time when women were valued not just on their bodies but they had a greater role in society.
“For women who embrace modesty they come to feel that freedom is not found in showing more and more of your body; true freedom comes from embracing your dignity and is not just about how you look but your behaviour, how are you growing in virtue?
“But like any of the virtues, it’s a journey and needs to be taken to prayer. We need to pursue the knowledge of why we dress modestly [as Catholics], it’s about desiring what is true in the faith.”
A parishioner at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Kogarah, Jane (pictured right) became aware that some Catholics wore veils to Mass when she was preparing for baptism five years ago.
“It sparked an interest but I was much more interested in getting grounded in the faith at that time,” she said.
Later, through friends, she attended a Mass in the Extraordinary Form at Maternal Heart chapel in Lewisham and found something “beautiful and captivating” about the women covering their heads for Mass.
The acupuncturist who grew up in a martial arts family said she began to reflect on femininity in relation to herself after she entered the Church.
“Two years ago I started to read up on veiling in church particularly and saw there was a lot of tradition around it,” she said. “But what touched me more is it spoke very deeply to me about being a daughter of God and needing to be rooted in Christ and that wearing a veil at Mass could be a visible reminder to me of that which is my central identity.
“it spoke very deeply to me about being a daughter of God and needing to be rooted in Christ and that wearing a veil at Mass could be a visible reminder to me of that which is my central identity.”
“So veiling was a deeply personal decision for me and a fruit of my prayer. It’s about trying to live that identity in a more full way each time I go to Mass, as well as to give glory to the Lord’s presence at Mass.”
Now Jane’s time is split roughly 50/50 between acupuncture therapy and making lace and embroidered tulle mantillas for her growing Etsy business Filia Dei Veils.
In late 2019 with local suppliers thin on the ground she began sewing veils for herself to save on overseas shipping costs. That grew to providing them for friends, fellow parishioners and then setting up her store.
“I feel very blessed that it’s come this far because I never expected it to,” she said. “Medicine is something I hold very deeply to and I see it as the way I serve others as a woman, but this is something different and has a very special place in my heart as well. I guess I just have to trust in the Lord and see where it takes me.”
Filia Dei Veils also has more than 1200 followers on its Instagram page, and Jane agrees there’s a resurgence in young women wanting to wear a chapel veil or mantilla. She believes that it holds a different meaning to when women wore the head coverings pre-Vatican II, when the secular messaging today about what it is to be a man or a woman is so confusing and even toxic.
“I think they are looking to Mother Mary, as she is our greatest model, both visually and also in the practice of our faith,” she said. “She is a very strong feminine model when femininity is so heavily attacked these days.
“I do feel for teenagers who have messaged me saying they struggle because they would like to wear a veil to church but their family won’t support them in it.”
The Sydney teenager and Maronite Catholic said she wanted to begin wearing a veil to Mass when she was around 12.
“It was in the context of my prayer and reading the Bible and I was so inspired by the image of Mary,” she said. “I went downstairs and told my mum I want a veil, how can I get one?” Sonya had to summon up all her courage the first time she wore a veil to a school Mass, and while some students made fun of her she felt “very convicted” that it was the right thing for her to do.
“It helps me to focus more and pray in the church and appreciate more deeply the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament,” she said. “That is very important to me.” This March the teenager began to make chapel veils using lace and scarves with chiffon, and by April had set up her own online store and also sells them at St Michael’s Catholic Church, Belfield.
“Each one takes me between 15 minutes to more than two hours to make and I do it after school or on the weekend,” she said. “My interest is not really in how many Instagram followers or sales I can get, it’s not a business to me. I want to spread a message about our sacred tradition and especially the importance of the Eucharist and to glorify Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
“I also want to show that there’s an alternative to the false idea of beauty in women, that it’s not all about vanity and wanting other people to notice you. A woman’s beauty really reflects her spiritual life, that’s the most important thing.”
After Jenny’s story of launching her lace veil-making business Zelie’s Sewing Studio was published in The Catholic Weekly newspaper in June she noticed an uptake in interest with Aid to the Church in Need Australia also selling them through its online shop.
The catechist coordinator at St Mel’s Catholic Church, Campsie, said she thinks the renaissance of modest clothing including veiling among young women reflects a “deepening in prayer” and a return to a focus on beauty in liturgies as well as growing desire among younger generations to learn about their faith.
“Yes the lace is very beautiful but more than that, I think their prayer life is growing and it is faith-inspired,” she said. “Ultimately we are drawn to beauty because God is beautiful, and I do think this interest shows that more young women are being drawn to God, to learning about their faith and to beauty in the Church.
“If people are taught the faith whole and entire then they see the Church from a beautiful perspective. There’s also an increased appreciation for the beauty of the Mass, whether the Latin Mass or even the English Mass with parts of the Mass sung in Gregorian chant.”
Jenny is heartened to see the ancient tradition of veiling restored as “a small tool that we can use to open our hearts to God more.”