The smock wedding is one of the few wedding traditions from the past that does not seem to have passed into contemporary use even amidst changes. While most of us are familiar with the fact that the wedding kiss is now symbolic of an actual public deflowering of the bride to ensure the trustworthiness of her virginity and purity, and such things as the white gown, the veil and even the ring have roots in ancient traditions that are not really practiced to the ultimate anymore, the smock wedding seems to have disappeared altogether. Well, there are nude weddings and weddings in which both parties are wearing swimsuits or other provocative attire, but that is not anywhere near the same thing.
The smock wedding was conducted most often amongst early settlers of New England; it was a remnant of English common law. In a smock wedding the bride and the bride alone is attired in only her underwear, a smock or, occasionally, even less. The reason for this unusual and probably quite surprising choice had to do with English common law which stated that any man who married a widow became responsible for any debts of the bride’s most recent husband if she brought any of her deceased husband’s property with her. The core problem here was that women were not allowed to own anything, therefore even her own clothing would be considered their deceased husband’s property. Even if the woman herself made the clothing, which was usually the case, then bringing that clothing into the new marriage automatically made the new husband responsible for all the debt incurred by the dead husband.
Clearly, then, the smock wedding was only partially about matrimony. In fact, the smock wedding was one part wedding and one park bankruptcy hearing. That latter part was true in more than just name since the smock wedding was usually a quite public event. In the early days, the smock wedding had to be held in a very public place, like a highway. Gradually, more and more smock weddings moved indoors. Regardless of whether the smock wedding was held indoors or outdoors, the bride generally was dressed in either underwear or, as you might expect, a smock. As the smock wedding moved out of prying eyes the symbolism often became quite starkly more concrete.
There are several reports of new grooms being so insistent upon the letter and spirit of the law that they would require their new brides to go through the ceremony completely nude. The most famous of these nude smock weddings is oft-repeated story of Hannah Ward who married Major Moses Joy while completely naked and standing in a closet with a hole cut in the door through which her hand was stuck to take hold of Mr. Joy’s hand. The smock wedding was clearly a rather bizarre ritual that gave legitimacy to an outdated and quite ridiculous law that stated no woman was allowed to own property. Common law is based on ever-changing precedent as the laws loosened to allow women to own property, as well as loosened so that husbands no longer had to incur the debt of a woman’s deceased previous husband, the smock wedding became a thing almost legendary.