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Bells, Belles & Beaux

Bells, Belles & Beaux:

 Wedding Traditions in SLO County 1870s to 1950s




Bells, Belles, and Beaux presents San Luis Obispo County’s wedding traditions from the pioneers of the first rancheros to the suburbanites of the 1950s using the Museum’s collection of gowns and other wedding related objects. SLO weddings have reflected both national trends and customs specific to the area. Wedding gowns combine the most traditional expressions of womanhood with the latest changes in fashion and women’s roles. Early Wedding TraditionsAs late as the 1880s, SLO County was home to many weddings between Anglo men and Hispanic women as Americans ventured to the Wild West and settled on the Central Coast. Weddings often took place in one of the missions, churches, or in the bride’s home. The festivities included food, music, and dancing, but could also be nothing more than a ceremony with a priest and witness in the bride’s kitchen. Bridal dresses were often worn after the wedding, so their fashion focused on utility. The dresses came in a multitude of colors, and could even be altered to serve a woman’s pregnancy.

The Emergence of the “New Woman”

Fashion of the 1890s reflected the New Woman, whose roles were evolving toward more activities outside the home.  The Woman Suffrage movement caused controversy throughout California, and while SLO voters supported the 1896 statewide voting act, SLO women did not get to vote until 1919.  Wedding gowns followed the fashion as bodices expanded and contracted, and bustles disappeared altogether.  Elaborate, beautiful, pale colored, delicate dresses foreshadowed the luxurious wedding gowns of today.

Wedding Media

Print media spread wedding trends across America in the early 1900s. Women’s magazines, such as Ladies Home Journal, shared the latest in fashionable floral arrangements, men’s ideas of marriage, marital advice, and lavish household advertisements. The growing motion picture industry amplified fashion trends, both on and off the screen with the birth of a new celebrity culture.   Road and rail transportation expanded communication between SLO and the rest of California, especially Hollywood, and at the same time, increased the size of wedding parties. By 1905, SLO had its first four cars. More people meant more planning and more elaborate events.

Always a Bridesmaid…

Not all women in the county chose to be married. The early1900s fostered women’s independence with a stronger emphasis on education. Many young SLO women studied art, music, or languages in the Bay area. Many traveled to expand their views of the world. Married and single women established philanthropic and educational groups. They raised funds for civic service, and they supported women and children’s activities of all kinds. One such group, the Monday Club, held its first meeting in this building in 1925.

The Roaring 1920s and Thrifty 1930s

After 1920, the national flapper culture formed its own fashion trend: use less fabric. Dresses became shorter, waists and sleeves vanished. This structureless, column-shaped style emphasized feminine freedoms, so brides could wear short wedding gowns to assert their independence.

During the Great Depression, bridal “gowns” included suits and colorful day dresses that could easily be worn again. Wedding ceremonies in the courthouse were a popular alternative to church weddings.  It was a time for saving and practicality, and inconspicuous consumption.

World War II and Beyond

Thousands of young soldiers came to train at Camp Roberts and Camp SLO during World War II. United Service Organizations (USOs), run by local women, offered them dances and social interaction in a homelike atmosphere. Weddings ensued that reflected the war’s influences. Grooms often wore their military uniforms. Brides wore modest, often homemade, gowns to which satin fabric and a long train added a touch of elegance.