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|
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.
|A 20th C. pattern for a nice, modest 18th C. chemise|
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.