After watching the new Justin Timberlake video, reader Katie Rose wrote in to ask about the origins of “dressed to the nines.” Reader Donna wrote with the same question, though I don’t know what music videos she’s been watching.
There’s plenty of folk etymologies for the phrase that link clothing with the number nine. One says that the phrase comes from the nine yards of material a tailor needed to make a really nice suit. A few tailors I talked to, though, say four to five yards of fabric should be sufficient for a three piece suit. Another origin story says that the phrase refers to the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot, a British army regiment established in 1824, reportedly known for the immaculate condition of their uniforms. Still another clothing origin suggests that the phrase descends from the Old English saying “dressed to the eyes,” which, because Old English was weird, was written as “dressed to then eyne.” The thinking goes that someone at some point heard “then eyne” and mistook it for “the nine” or “the nines.”
The hitch with these clothing-specific origins, though, is that the simpler phrases “to the nine” and “to the nines” were already used to mean “to perfection” for about a century before “dressed to the nines” came along. Whatever significance the number nine had to warrant its place in the phrase, it doesn’t seem to have always been specific to clothing.
This opens up the possibilities to a few more proposed origins, but there doesn’t seem to be one solid answer. The “nine” in question could still be a misheard “then eyne” and refer to the eyes. It might also refer to a group of nine, examples of which pop up in myth and history all over the world. In Christianity, the fruits and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are both nine in number. In Norse cosmology, the great tree Yggdrasil unites nine worlds. The ancient Greeks had nine muses. In Europe during the Middle Ages, the Nine Worthies were men drawn from pagan, Jewish and Christian history as personifications of chivalry. “The nines” we invoke when talking about a snappy dresser might mean any one of these groups, or something else, but a definitive answer is elusive.