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What is the Origin of the Term "Dressed to the Nines"?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Describing someone as being "dressed to the nines" implies the donning of expensive clothing, jewelry and other fashionable accessories, most likely for a formal dance or theatrical performance. The origins of the term are unclear, but there are a number of theories related to the number nine specifically.

One prevailing theory concerning the origin of the term surrounds the significance of the number nine. Some sources believe that the number nine possessed a spiritual or cultural strength, much like the numbers three, seven, or 13 do today. For example, there were nine Muses said to inspire mankind's pursuit of the arts. If someone were described as "dressed to the nines", it could have been an outfit capable of impressing the nine Muses. The expression "to the nines" was actually in popular use before this specific term came into vogue. It's entirely possible that the reference was meant as a tribute to the Muses or other significant figures.

Another theory states that women of the Middle Ages would often wear fashionable gloves as part of their formal wear. These gloves were said to contain nine buttons from wrist to elbow, so if a woman was said to be "dressed to the nines", she would be wearing her most formal evening wear. In a similar vein, the price for admission for theatrical performances often ranged from one shilling for a front row seat to nine shillings for the preferred balcony or box seating. Anyone who could afford the highest ticket prices might be considered for the most expensive seats as opposed to the unwashed groundlings seated on the grass in front of the stage.

Some sources believe that the expression is somehow related to the expression "the whole nine yards." Each was once thought to originate in the tailoring profession, where it was believed that a quality suit or gown required 9 yards (8.2 meters) of material. In reality, most tailors and dressmakers could create very elegant clothing from far less material. The "whole nine yards" may have been inspired by the 27 feet (or 9 yards) of cloth used in a military gun belt, but no one has been able to connect "dressed to the nines" with the expression "whole nine yards."

There is even a theory that suggest "dressed to the nines" may have been corrupted from "dressed to the eyes", an expression that also means the donning of elegant formal-wear. It is possible that the original expression morphed from the eyes into the nines in the same way a narancia, the original name of the citrus fruit, became slurred as an arancia. We now say "an orange" even though the original word began with an "n," so it is possible that we say "nines" instead of the original "eyes." Anything is possible whenever dictionaries throw down the etymological gauntlet known as "origin unknown."

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments
By anon346335 — On Aug 27, 2013

I heard the same thing as mentioned in Post 1 many years ago.

By anon345157 — On Aug 16, 2013

Nine-button gloves belong more to the 1800s than to the Middle Ages?

By anon315338 — On Jan 23, 2013

In french it translates to dressed to the 31's.

By anon260470 — On Apr 11, 2012

Years ago I was told the expression was a military expression for "formal" wear- honor ceremonies, dinners, dances, etc.

By anon152097 — On Feb 12, 2011

#5 has it right! I heard about this years ago, and almost every time I go out, put it into practice. A plain item of clothing, jewelry or accessory gets a 1. Fancier items get a 2 (wedding band doesn't count). Many times I end up leaving off one piece of jewelry. A lady should only be dressed to the 9's in the evening, never in daytime!

By anon128315 — On Nov 19, 2010

I support the theory that it is a sailing term for when Naval ships returned to harbor.

They would raise nine sails, and the crew would line the sides of the vessels as they entered the harbor, swinging the sails to ensure they did not catch too much wind.

By anon90480 — On Jun 16, 2010

When men wore tails, they had shirts and collars that were separate and without buttons. Therefore they had to purchase studs to close the front of the shirt, studs to affix the detachable collars, cuff links for the French Cuffs and a tie pin or tie tack for their Cravat.

The studs a gentleman wore were usually gold or gold plate. The count of the jewelry was as follows: six studs, four of the front of the Shirt, two for the collar. Two cuff links and a tie pin or tack. Nine in all. These could be bought in matching sets.

If a man was wearing all these pieces, he was dressed the most formally he could dress. He was "dressed to the nines."

By anon80820 — On Apr 28, 2010

I was told that when men were dressed up for the evening in the Victorian Era it took nine articles of clothing to be "properly dressed."

By anon80082 — On Apr 26, 2010

Although the general consensus to the origin of this term is written below and the true origin is unknown, consider the meaning to be simply a reference of scale. "On a scale of one to ten; you are dressed to the nines."

Since perfection can never be attained, nine would be the absolute best. The plural version on nine "Nines" is nothing more than people trying to make more of the number nine and fractionalizing it for further impact.

With this definition in mind, every use of the term below would make sense.

By anon77465 — On Apr 14, 2010

I read somewhere a while back that "dressed to the nines' referred to how much clothing and adornment you were wearing.

I don't remember exactly, but it went something like this: You got one point for a dress, two points for a dress with jacket; one point for hose, one point for low shoes, two points for high heels; one point each for necklace, bracelet and watch, etc. Your total number of points could not exceed nine, or you would be overdressed. You only wanted to be "dressed to the nines," not "dressed to the tens."

By anon70503 — On Mar 14, 2010

Dressed to the Nines refers to the cost of the outfit. New suit 99.99, new shoes 29.99, new hat 39.99.

By anon39442 — On Aug 01, 2009

seems to me that it is more simple, like the phrase "dressed to the teeth" means the same thing. why wouldn't "dressed to the nines" be referring to the canine teeth?

By anon26647 — On Feb 17, 2009

"The whole nine yards" comes from US P-38L Lightning military plane during WW2 that carried 27 feet of belt-ammunition (500 x 0.50 cal rounds, divided into 2 for the 2 wing mounted cannons). To give it the whole 9 yards meant to destroy the target (not literally, as is often thought, to expend all the ammo on that one target, as it was used often by pilots boasting to each other while simultaneously high-fiving, think Top Gun with a Glen Miller sound track)

By anon20353 — On Oct 29, 2008

actually, I heard it is a bastardized version of the old english phrase "dressed to thine eyes" -- meaning dressed in a why desirable to the other person's "thine" eyes.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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