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Today Collected Wisdom, always noted for its elegance and style, addresses matters sartorial concerning buttons and the number 9.

THE QUESTION: Why do men's and women's shirts unbutton on opposite sides? Susan Fibbiani of Bloomfield, Ont., wants to know.

THE ANSWER: There are competing theories on this, so we haven't exactly got the topic (ahem) sewn up. The first explanation comes from Don Baker of Newmarket, Ont. He says it has to do with horseback riding.

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"When a man sat astride a horse and rode on the left side of the road he was able to fight an approaching rider by using a sword in his right hand. To retrieve the sword from his left hip, he would pull back his coat with his left hand and grasp the sword with his right. This meant that the left side of his coat had to overlap the right side.

"Women in those days rode side-saddle with both legs on the left side of the horse. When riding into a wind, wearing a man's coat would have allowed a draft through any gaps under the left side between the buttons. By having the right side overlap the left, this problem was avoided."

Many CW readers, however, had a different explanation.

"Men's shirts have buttons sewn on the right-hand side because most people are right-handed and thus the dominant hand manipulates the buttons," writes Jean Cockburn of Denman Island, B.C. "The collected wisdom" - thanks for the plug, Jean! - "is that women's blouses have buttons on the left-hand side because women were traditionally dressed by maids, and thus the maid would be working with her right hand as she faced a blouse with the buttons sewn on the left.

"This explanation is, of course, oblivious to the fact that the majority of women dressed themselves."

THE QUESTION: What is the origin of the expression "dressed to the nines"? asked Francis Mozer of Toronto.

THE ANSWER: Again, no consensus on this one. In fact, you might say that the answers are at sixes an sevens.

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Denis Young of Qualicum Beach, B.C., takes this information from a book by David Griffin entitled British Army Regiments.

In Victorian times, the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment was famous for its impeccable turnout, which led it to be chosen to stand guard over the Queen's pavilion at Aldershot in 1858. "The 99th wore a diced Glengarry [hat]and its legendary smartness resulted in the saying 'to dress to the nines.'?"

The final word on this (for now) comes from Tony Nickonchuk of Timmins, Ont. "The exact origin of the phrase is unknown," he writes, "but is attributed to the poetry of Robert Burns, when he speaks of painting 'auld Nature to the nines.' "

Many believe it is a bastardization of the old English phrase "dressed to the eynes," meaning clothed in classy attire right to your eyeballs. Another theory is that it originates from the same place as "the whole nine yards."

Ships used to have three masts with three primary yards, so there were nine yards on a ship. When all yards were in use, the ship was "dressed to the nines."

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Joslyn Grassby of Ottawa asks: Why does our hair go grey at the temples first?

Andrew Slater from Sudbury, Ont., writes: The words inscribed above the four doors to the entrance to the Parliament building in Ottawa read: "The wholesome sea is at her gates" above the left two doors, and "Her gates both east and west" above the right two doors. What's their origin?

Send answers (and questions) to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Include your name, location and a daytime phone number.

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