The piece of cloth worn on a nun's head is known as a veil. They can come in many shapes, sizes and colors. The different types of veils can indicate different things. The wearing of a veil is a commandment from the Bible when it says: "every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered disgraces her head" (First Corinthians 11:3).
Veils vary in color. Difference in color help to display the hierarchy within the convent. Nuns who wear white veils are still in training to become a nun and have not taken their vows of chastity and devotion. A black veil indicates a nun who has already taken her solemn vows and is therefore a full-fledged nun. The style of veil is very dependent on what is worn by the rest of the convent. The stereotype of a nun who wears all black with a black veil does not include all nuns. That view relates primarily to the Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican orders of nuns.
Different Shapes of Veils
Veils are typically long headdresses that cover all of a woman's hair. The veil will drape over a nun's back to varying lengths, depending on the habit of the convent. Certain sects of Catholic nuns will differ in the shapes of their headdresses. For instance, in the 17th century there was a group known as the Daughters of Charity. Members wore headdresses known as cornettes. A cornette was actually a conventional headdress among lay-people. The cornette was adopted by the Daughters of Charity as a way to blend in with the people of the community. The cornette consists of a white cloth that is starched and bent upwards.
Alternatives to the veil
Some nuns choose to wear headscarves as opposed to the traditional veil. Mother Teresa is the most notable example of this. Mother Teresa and her nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, wore a blue and white headscarf.
Today some nuns decide to avoid wearing the veil altogether. These nuns prefer to wear conventional clothing because it allows for closer connection to the community, similar to the Daughters of Charity.
Purpose of the veil
The veil is meant as a symbol of subservience within the Catholic religious community. In wearing the veil, the women are distinguishing themselves from the men of the religion who do not need to cover their heads. The veil indicates modesty, uniformity, as well as inferiority to men. Men do not need to restrict themselves while praying, but women do.