Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Smock Wedding

by Susanne Dietze

Love is in the air! Valentine’s Day is approaching! Let’s talk weddings.
Congratulations to the happy pair! XOXO

Not regular ol' weddings, though. Smock weddings.

Say you’re a widow or indebted young lady in 18th century England or America. You’d like to get married to Mr. Ye Olde Hunky Swain, and he wants to marry you. You observe all the traditions, of course: there will be a ceremony with a clergyman, a cake, flowers, and the bride will be kissed.

But you won't wear a new dress, or even your best dress. You won’t be wearing a dress AT ALL.

Hard to believe these actually happened—in churches too—but brides were married naked, or at most, barefoot and donned in one’s chemise (smock) or even draped in a sheet.
This lady wears a corset over her chemise

The chemise (or smock or shift) was the first garment a Georgian-era female would don. It was white and thin and went under a corset, which went under the gown. I wore a chemise under my Regency gown to the ACFW genre dinner (thanks to my seamstress Debra E. Marvin), and I can attest to its comfort. It’s like a nightgown or a muumuu—modest by today's standards--but I would not want to wear it in public. It’s on the sheer side, and it’s most definitely underwear. Thus I won't be sharing  a photo of me in one.
Simplicity 4052 Regency Chemise and Chemisette Pattern 6-12
A 20th C. pattern for a nice, modest 18th C. chemise
So chemises covered one's (ahem) parts, but it was not by any definition a public garment, and it definitely revealed one's lumpier bits. (They didn't have bras and panties back then.) Which makes it both sad and astonishing that women wore them to be married. Why would they do such a thing?

Widows whose husbands died with debts were not considered desirable partners, since they came with financial obligations that their new grooms were responsible for paying. Some wealthy fellas could take on the debt without issue, but most guys couldn’t marry an indebted bride and have wedding cake and still eat it, too.  So apparently, brides in these circumstances went to the church (or, in some American cases, stood outside for an audience), stripped down, to nothing or her underwear, and swapped vows with her groom.

The idea was if a bride was naked or clothed in undergarments, she was symbolically stating that she brought nothing to her marriage, not even debts, and her new husband was not liable for any of her late husband's financial obligations. Back then, women could own nothing, so even if she wore a garment she stitched herself, it was legally the property of her deceased husband. Bringing that clothing into the new marriage apparently put the new husband on the hook for the previous hubby’s debts.

Sounds horrid, and more than a little humiliating. But some women saw no other option. I imagine these weddings were hardly romantic, loving affairs. Rather, they were public testaments to a woman’s financial ruin and desperation.
As if Regency gowns weren't revealing enough!
(And yes, this sketch was indeed a parody.)
Smock weddings were not so common that they didn’t get press when they occured. English newspapers reported on them (bless the brides’ hearts), such as the case of Mrs. Judith Redding, who in 1775 married Mr. Richard Elcock in a Winchester church wearing her shift, after stripping down in a pew. The smock wedding of Mr. Nathaniel Eller to the Widow Herbert a few years earlier was also reported in Lancashire.

Early America saw more than a few of these, too. The most famous is Hannah Ward, who married Major Moses Joy while completely naked. She stood in a closet with a hole cut in the door through which she could stick out her hand and take his. At least nobody saw her particular parts.

I suppose we should be grateful that the times have changed. Women can own property, and marriage is viewed (I hope) as a lifetime commitment of love and support, rather than a financial transaction.

Happy Valentine's Day to all, no matter what we're wearing.


Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. She won first place in the Historical category of the 2011-2012 Phoenix Rattler, and her work has finaled in the Genesis, Gotcha!, and Touched By Love Contests. Susanne is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. You can visit her on her website, www.susannedietze.com.


  1. Interesting, I didn't know about this. Definitely belongs in a novel.

    1. It definitely belongs in a novel. I have been thinking about the hero's perspective of such a thing, knowing one's bride was going through this sort of humiliation.

    2. Susie, the hero's perspective would definitely make an interesting story. Wow. I can't even imagine this. How absolutely humiliating and sad.

  2. I'm with Dina. This belongs in a novel, although I'm not certain most CBA publishers would approve!

    Oh, and Deb. You did get a picture of Susie in the chemise, didn't you? Email it to me later...

    1. You're right about how pubs might take it, CJ! But I bet there are ways to delicately handle such a scene.

      As for the pic? Deleted off my phone. Phew!

    2. such a good idea for a novel it will be in a few within the next year or two, right?

  3. Who knew? There are so many things I could say... starting with the degradation of women in society to what a fantastic way to start a novel!

    1. Who knew, indeed! I was shocked to read a passing couple of paragraphs on the subject.

      These women must have felt so embarrassed. And so desperate, too. Ay ay ay.

  4. this just amazes me. I had never heard of such a thing! wow. As for chemises... I love them! for girly stuff. doing your hair before donning your stays for instance, ala Liz and Jane Bennett. Well, we knew that Regency girls didnt' mind getting their muslin damp if that helped, right?

    but naked?
    you sure it didn't have anything to do with a figure? Could you get left at the altar if your bits weren't desirable?

    Yes, I have those incriminating photos of S. D. mwhahaha... hmm, now where did I put them?

    1. Now, now, Deb, let's not be hasty. Can't I bribe you somehow?

  5. I had heard of this, but oh my. Do not want. Too humiliating!

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    Yes, I want to see the picture!!!

    1. Nude weddings happen all the time, but the reasons are entirely different these days....

      No you do not want to see pics! LOL


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