Dressed to the Nines

Billie Eilish photo credit: "Billie Eilish at the Met Gala 2021" by Vogue Taiwan, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons Image cropped

Hi AC,

My aunt commented on my New Year’s Eve picture on Facebook that I was “dressed to the nines.” Does anyone actually use this phrase anymore?

Silvia, Atlanta GA

Dear Silvia,

Yes and no. As you probably know, "dressed to the nines" means dressed in fine clothes--like Billie Eilish above in a peach ballgown at the 2021 Met Gala. It first appeared in print in the 18th century, and initially was used about feelings as well as fashion. For instance, in 1796, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote that something would "please [him] to the Nine."

As for now, the phrase is not dead, but is rarely used in conversation. I consulted the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), a large, searchable database of spoken and written language from the last 32 years to see how frequently the phrase is used. In speech samples, "dressed to the nines" appears only once every 20 million words. In comparison, the more common phrase "dressed up" is used almost 70 times more often.

Though it's not used very often in written English either, "dressed to the nines" appears more in fiction and in song lyrics. Most notably, it's used in Taylor Swift's 2012 song "Starlight," which was re-released on her album Red (Taylor's Version) in early November, 2021:

The whole place
Was dressed to the nines
And we were dancing, dancing
Like we're made of starlight

However, it's worth noting that Swift's song tells a story that takes place in 1945! She may have been aiming for a vintage sound to her lyrics.

Over the last two months, the new version of "Starlight" has been listened to over 18 million times on Spotify. As of yet, there's no data on whether people will suddenly start using the phrase in conversation, but my guess is that they won't—Swift was also popular ten years ago, when the first version came out, and it has yet to take off.

So, does anyone use it now? Yes, novelists and Taylor Swift. And your aunt!

Your pal,


A. C. Kemp

January 12, 2022

<Back    Index    >