Modesty, Uncategorized

Modesty 101: Are dress codes helpful or harmful?

by Christine Woolgar


It might have escaped your notice, but Hogwarts has a dress code.

Harry Ron Hermione

In having a uniform, Hogwarts’ follows mainstream practice in UK primary and secondary schools (that is, those for pupils up to the age of 16). Uniforms certainly differ, but regardless of how a school is funded, they all have them. As someone who grew up in this system, I have to say that it has benefits – even though my secondary school had a particularly garish combination of colours.

Why? Why is this OK? Why is this top-down curbing of freedom generally accepted as a good thing? And what are its limits?

Welcome to part 2 of the Modesty 101 series. (For all posts on modesty, click here.) In this post and the next I’ll be looking at dress codes, the purposes they serve and the values that underpin them. It might feel like a detour, but once we’ve had a think dress codes in general, we’ll be in a better position to ask questions about modesty and bodies.

What purpose does the Hogwarts uniform serve?

Before we can even begin to ask whether a dress code is good or bad, we have to ask other questions first. Dress codes only exist in collective environments and we therefore can’t evaluate them without first asking about an organisation’s purpose.

Hogwarts is a respected educational institution set up to teach not just knowledge, but also to equip 11 to 18 year-olds with the social and thinking skills they will need to participate meaningfully in society as they grow up. So far, so good.

How does the school uniform fit in with this purpose? Well, for one thing, it enables the school to project its image and uphold its reputation in public.

But more than that, the dress code also serves the students.

The school uniform is a social and economic equaliser; the Malfoys and the Weasleys all wear essentially the same clothes despite having very different levels of wealth. It also removes the difficulty of indecision and pitfalls of low self confidence; everyone is able to come to the ‘right’ answer and no one can be picked on for wearing what everyone else is required to wear.

It also serves as a temporary measure to give structure to the learning environment of children and young people, whose thinking around self-presentation is still under development. “But,” I hear you object, “wizarding law means they come of age at 17 – so this is enforcing a dress code on adults.” Well, Hogwarts is weird. In the UK, the school uniform gets ditched at the end of secondary school; that’s the age of 16. So, in this case, reality is actually more relaxed than fiction.

Harry and Malfoy

The uniform also signals belonging. In the real world, the public sign of which school you go to is important, not just for the local community, but particularly when on school field trips or in inter-school competitions. Admittedly, this is less important for Hogwarts, being the only wizarding school in the UK. However, Hogwarts creates a sense of both belonging and distinctiveness (including an appetite for competition) by having different uniforms for the different houses instead. (No, we don’t do that in real life.)

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the uniform states that the students are people of value. They carry in their clothing the emblems of four of the greatest witches and wizards in history; the uniform is a testament to how children and their learning was valued by Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. The uniform signals an aspiration that any pupil might rise up to do great things.

So this is what the Hogwarts uniform does. Importantly, there are also things it doesn’t do.

It doesn’t discriminate differences in identity.

It doesn’t jeopardise health.

It doesn’t erase individuality.

It doesn’t stifle self-expression.

Not all dress codes are equal

With all that in mind, consider the following.

Mandatory high heels: One young woman was sent home on her first day of being a meet-and-greet receptionist because she wasn’t wearing high heels, even though she was expected to be on her feet nine hours a day. She complained saying that flat shoes wouldn’t prevent her from doing her job (but would preserve the health of her feet). As it so happens, it wasn’t the employer that had this policy, but the temping agency.

Flat-chested body armour: In 1999 a female police officer in the UK had breast reduction surgery because her body armour was so painful to wear. Two years previously another police constable was fatally stabbed after taking off her body armour – because of her discomfort. There have been other forms of body protection available, but the topic of accommodating the female form was still live topic in 2014.

Walking wombs: OK, The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian, but the author Margaret Atwood assets it is speculative fiction, not science fiction. And there, the clothes are colour-coded according to the women’s function: those in red exist to bear children and their bonnets stop even their faces from being easily discernable. Make no mistake this commodification of the body is denial of identity, denial of individuality and denial of self-expression. And that’s tantamount to denial of humanity.

Dress Codes_ Helpful or Harmful_

I’m not going to analyse these three examples in depth; I’m hoping they speak for themselves and you can figure out how each one is less than helpful or indeed harmful. The point to take home is that we can’t assess a dress code without thinking about how the dress code serves the purposes of an organisation and its members.

And yes, when the purposes of that organisation are good, which is the case with Hogwarts, then the code is more likely to say good things about the people who dress by it. Also, when the organisation’s ethos is inclusive, the dress code is more likely to flex around, and thereby welcome, the different identities and needs of the people within it.

Concluding thoughts

I appreciate I haven’t really talked about modesty in this post – and the simple reason for that is because dress codes aren’t about modesty. Not really.

In the first post of this series, I made the argument that modesty is about veiling, or hiding, your glory for the purposes of inclusion. You could say that, in the case of organisations like Hogwarts, the uniform is about showing part of a person’s glory as a way of upholding the organisation’s reputation. You could also say that where dress codes go wrong is when an organisation’s reputation is held up through the detriment of its members and/or through the erasure of its members’ identities.

And yes, I know that this happens in a lot of what gets called ‘modesty culture’. But before we can unpick questions concerning the morality of women wearing skirts that stop above the knee, for example, we’ve got to get our heads around the values and assumptions of people who use dress codes. Because this has a huge influence over how they enforce the codes (if indeed they do enforce them).

So, next time I’ll be looking at Professor Umbridge and how she addresses the question of the students’ dress and decorum.


Christine Woolgar 2Christine Woolgar is a theological thinker. Living in the UK with her husband, she loves to delve deeply into scripture. She entered marriage with an alarming ignorance of consent, sexuality and equality, but also an amazing husband who helped her overcome all this, and she now has a passion for shaping the church’s attitudes in these areas – as well as more widely. She is unafraid to tackle awkward questions, but aspires to do so with grace and understanding.

You can find her and more of her writings on:

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