dressed to kill/to the nines

dressed to kill/to the nines

Very fashionably attired. The first expression is a nineteenth-century Americanism. It appears in print in E. G. Paige’s Dow’s Patent Sermons, ca. 1849 (“A gentleman tiptoeing along Broadway, with a lady wiggle-waggling by his side, and both dressed to kill”). The precise analogy is no longer known. “Kill” may allude to the idea of making a conquest, or perhaps it is an extension of something “done to death”—that is, overdone. Dressed to the nines, also put as dressed up to the nines, is British in origin and literally means elaborately dressed to perfection. The “nines” were singled out to signify “superlative” in numerous other contexts from the late eighteenth century on, but no one is quite sure why. Some say it is because nine, as the highest single-digit number, symbolizes the best. Today, however, it is the numeral ten that signifies the best (as, for example, in Olympics judging). Other writers suggest that nines is a corruption of “to then eyne”—that is, to the eyes—but this interpretation doesn’t make much sense either. Describing an old department store holding its final sale before closing and lavishly decorated for Christmas, Mary Cantwell observed that “the corpse was dressed to the nines” (New York Times, Dec. 1989).
See also: dress, kill, nine