The Phrase ‘Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride’ Has Nothing to Do with Weddings and Everything to Do with Bad Breath
The expression “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” speaks to the misery of some hypothetical woman who’s the last among her friends to get married. It shows an old-fashioned view of marriage, where getting married — not marrying some particular person who you love, but just achieving the status of marriage, period — is your inevitable goal.
We got the ultimate depiction of this in the 2008 film 27 Dresses. Katherine Heigl plays someone who has been a bridesmaid 27 times but has still failed to ever get married herself, due to some romantic comedy reason. The movie contained so many genre clichés that the world collectively agreed it was time to put an end to that type of romcom, even though this exact one made a ton of money.
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” promotes marriage so openly that you might not even be surprised to learn that it first came to us through advertising. But we don’t have the wedding-industrial complex to thank for the marketing campaign that gave us the phrase. The ads were for Listerine, who claimed that you the reader hadn’t got married yet because you had bad breath.
They ran a whole series with this theme. The one below from 1925 tells us of Edna. “Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry,” but her chronic halitosis kept her from fulfilling it, even as her age edged upward “toward that tragic thirty-mark,” beyond which all hope would be lost.
The original tagline was “often a bridesmaid,” not “always a bridesmaid,” which made it technically more accurate than the version we remember today. Edna and Katherine Heigl were frequently bridesmaids, but they weren’t always bridesmaids; they were only bridesmaids at weddings.
Here’s another installment of the series, from 1956:
Keep in mind that 30 years had passed since this campaign began, but other than hairstyles, apparently nothing had changed in the world. Ad agencies shilling products totally unrelated to marriage would shift to messages other than “this will help women get married” only when the revolution of the 1960s came, causing a major shakeup in the staff of Sterling Cooper.
For more on the Listerine conspiracy, check out: