Smock weddings -- the custom of marrying a woman who was naked or dressed only in a smock -- survived the voyage from England and took hold in some early New England towns.
Early New Englanders believed that marrying a woman who was naked or in her underwear absolved them of liability for the woman’s debts – or if she were a widow, her late husband’s debts. The idea was that a groom who possessed anything bought by a bride or her deceased husband would possess their indebtedness as well.
John Gatchell and Sarah Cloutman were wed in such a smock wedding in Lincoln County, Maine, in 1767.
Some believed if the bride were married "in her shift on the king's highway," a creditor could follow her no farther in pursuit of his debt, according to Alice Morse Earle in Customs and Fashions in Old New England. Such ‘smock marriages’ took place in York, Maine, on the public highway – often at night, to preserve the bride’s modesty.
A smock, or shift, was a thin undergarment worn in the days before bras and panties.
In February 1774, widow Mary Bradley was clad only in a shift when she met her bridegroom and the minister in York halfway between her house and the groom’s. The minister took pity on the shivering bride and threw his coat over her.
In 1789, Maj. Moses Joy was in love with Mrs. Hannah Ward, widow of William Ward. She was executor of her late husband's insolvent estate; he was the constable of Putney, Vt.
Catherine Cornelia Joy Dyer recounted the story of the smock wedding of Moses Joy and Hannah Ward in her 1876 volume, Brief History of the Joy Family:
To avoid the unpleasant penalties of the law, on the morning of her marriage with Major Joy Mrs. Ward placed herself in a close with a tire-woman (lady’s maid) who stripped her of all her clothing, and when in a perfectly nude state she thrust her fair, round arm through a diamond hole in the door of the closet, and the gallant major clasped the hand of the buxom widow and was married in due form by the jolliest parson in Vermont. At the close of the ceremony the tire-woman dressed the bride in a complete wardrobe which the major had provided and caused to be deposited in the closet at the commencement of the ceremony. She came out elegantly dressed in silk, satin and lace, and there was kissing all around.
In another Vermont smock wedding, the widow Lovejoy married Asa Averill while she was naked and hidden in a chimney recess behind a curtain.
There is also the story of the naked bride who climbed out a second-story window at night and stood on top of a ladder, where she put on her wedding clothes.
The custom survived in old England as well. In 1775, the widow Judith Redding married Richard Elcock in a Winchester church wearing her shift, after she took off the rest of her clothes in a pew.