‘Clothes optional’ marriages of the 18th century

As the old saying goes, you learn something new everyday, and this is certainly a new subject to me, at least. One of my lovely readers said that they had read about such marriages in ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ and hadn’t seen anything on All Things Georgian about such a type of marriage, so it seemed only right to correct this omission!

So, what was  this type of marriage? It was often referred to as a ‘shift‘ or ‘smock‘ marriage and occasionally a puris naturalibus or a naked marriage.

British Museum

One of the earliest references I came across which explains this bizarre notion was from the British Spy or New Universal London Weekly Journal of December 1757 which tells us that:

At Cranborne, Dorsetshire on 10 December 1757 a young woman who was married at our church, had only a shift on for a wedding garment; and the reason she gave for her coming to perfectly undressed, was, that she might be entirely quit of all debts she owed before marriage.

So, there we have it. If a woman appeared at the church with either little or nothing on, then she was free of debt when she married. It surprised me that the newspapers contained several references to such marriages in connection with debt, but here we have a slightly different take on this, from the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 30 June 1763, which reported that:

Worcester, June 23. The following circumstances, we are told, attended a marriage a few days ago, at a church near Stourbridge in this county. As soon as the woman came into the church, she stripped off all her cloaths, except her cap, shift, shoes and stockings; in which delicate and decent appearance she passed through the ceremony. This extraordinary piece  of whom, we are told, was thus occasioned. The bridegroom owed an acquaintance of his a sum of money, the creditor agreed to cancel the debt, on condition the woman could be prevailed upon to be married in the manner above mentioned.

Whilst many of these accounts carry no names (perhaps to save the blushes of the bride in question), we do know that according to the Salisbury and Winchester Journal 2 October 1775, we have the names of the happy couple, who married by licence in the town of Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire, on 21 September.

Bishop’s Waltham. © Sarah Murden

This couple were Richard Elcock, a bricklayer, and his new bride, Judith Redding. Judith wished to exempt her future husband from the payment of any debts she might have incurred. Judith went into one of the pews in the church, and stripped herself of all her cloaths except her shift, in which she went to the altar and was married, much to the astonishment of the parson, clerk etc.

According to the Northampton Mercury, 22 November 1794, at Lewes, Sussex, Mr Hollingdale, of Barcomb, near this town, was married to a widow of the same place, named Ford.

In order to get rid of some pecuniary obligations, ’twas judged expedient by the above couple, that the bride should cross the high road, attired en chemise only, in the presence of three male witnesses. Three neighbours were accordingly sent for, without being informed of the occasion, before whom the widow performed the curious ceremony, but as one of the witnesses was so confounded at what he saw, as to render him incapable of swearing to particulars, ‘tis doubted’ whether the stratagem of the newly married pair will prove successful.

The parish records confirm that Edward Hollingdale and Annie Ford were married by bans on 4 November 1794.

The Runcorn Examiner, 3 February 1912 had picked up on these unusual marriages and carried out its own research. It reported of one such marriage which took place on that date in 1774, at Saddleworth.

This marriage related to an Abraham Brooks, a widower, aged about 30 and his bride to be, a widow, Mary Bradley aged almost 70. Mary was believed to have been a little in debt and as such, Abraham obliged her to be married in her shift.

The weather was very severe on that day and caused her to suffer a violent fit of shaking, so much so, that the minister being compassionate, covered her with his coat whilst the marriage was solemnised.

The Wedding Breakfast; National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

The Caledonian Mercury 27 October 1794 reported that:

There is a prevalent (though we believe a very erroneous) opinion that if a widow is married without clothing, except a chemise, her second husband will be free from her debts.

The parish register book of Orchesten St Mary, a village in Wiltshire, contains an entry of the marriage of a woman ‘in her smock, without any head gear on,’ This marriage pertained to John Bridmore and Anne Selwood who were married on 17 October 1714.

At Ulcomb, in Kent in 1725, a woman married in her chemise. Having looked at the parish register and newspapers covering Ulcomb in Kent for 1725 there appears to be no mention of such an unusual wedding.

Similar marriages took place in America too, and from an article in the Hamilton Daily Times of 30 October 1919 and according to this article, in America at least:

The bride stood in a closet and put her hand through a hole in the door, sometimes she stood behind a cloth screen and put her hand out at one side, again, she wound about her a white sheet, furnished by the bridegroom and sometimes she stood in a her chemise or smock.

Whether this happened in Britain, there doesn’t seem to be anything to confirm such a thing.

In Lincolnshire, between 1838 and 1844, a woman was married wrapped only in a sheet. At Kirton in Lindsey, in North Lincolnshire, they took things one step further.

There was a popular belief  in that town, that the woman must be actually nude then she left her residence for that of her intended husband, in order to relieve him of her debts. The woman left her house from the bedroom window, stark naked and put on her clothes as she stood on the top of the ladder by which she accomplished her descent.

I have to say that I can’t see this custom being re-established any time soon.


Wood, Edward J, The Wedding Day in all Ages and Countries

Maryport Advertiser 4 June 1869

Featured Image

The Village Wedding, Thomas Falcon Marshall; Fylde Borough Council


16 thoughts on “‘Clothes optional’ marriages of the 18th century

    1. mistyfan

      I would not be surprised if this custom did go out in the Victorian era. No Victorian lady of decency would show up for her wedding in a shift! I wonder what widows did then to leave their debts behind when they remarried.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. mistyfan

    If you think that’s bizarre, get a load of what I read in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Encyclopedia of the Bizarre”, 2005, p. 314. Widowed Mrs Hannah Ward, when she married Major Moses Joy, at Newfane, Vt., 22 February 1789, had to wear a wooden box as her bridal gown! This was because in early New England, a second husband became legally responsible for the first husband’s debts if the bride brought any of her previous possessions to the wedding – even clothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarahmurden

      Thanks for that one, it does seem to have been more common than I’d realised. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more in the British newspapers from now on.


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