I've just run into an instance of a "shift marriage" in the published vital records of Newbury, Mass. Stephen Mitchel married Mrs. Katherine Brown on Jan. 4, 1774. The record of intentions (2:66) indicates that "the said Stephen takes said Katherine naked and so will not be obliged to pay any of her former husband's debts."
Aside from giving the pastor a thrill, a shift marriage (or smock marriage) served as a do-it-yourself legal proceeding. The idea was that, if the bride came to the marriage with no possessions (she was sometimes allowed to wear a shift, or chemise), she wouldn't bring with her the debts of the deadbeat she'd previously wed. Sometimes the unclothed bride was allowed to participate by sticking her hand through a "widow's hole" in a door.
When Major Moses JOY married Widow Hannah WARD of Newfame, Vermont, in 1789, she was stark naked. She was in a closet, her hand extended through a hole cut in the door. Then she put on a fine set of clothes and emerged from her closet in style, to the general admiration of the assembled. [Link]Other times, the ceremony was held on a public road for all to witness.
Thomas Calverwell was joyned in marriage to Abigail Calverwell his wife the 22 February, 1719. He took her in marriage after she had gone four times across the highway in only her shift and hairlace and no other clothing. [Link]A notice from The Fredonian of May 15, 1810, demonstrates that the British were not above causing their brides public embarrassment.
In England, Mr. Joshua Cossack, to Miss Mary Lofts; to secure her swain against the gripe of her unfeeling creditors, the bride crossed the highway, in a state of perfect nudity previous to going into church.Would this debt-forgiveness plan have stood up in court? John Buckman wasn't eager to test it, according to a 1659 deposition in Essex County, Mass.
Jno. Blany [...] deposed that about Michaelmas time he heard Joseph Armytage demand of John Buckman five pounds which Wm. Butler owed him; he said he would pay it, although he took his wife bare, without anything. [Link]As someone who hates sitting through weddings, I think this is a custom that deserves to be revived—so long as the widows are under thirty and go to the gym once in a while.