Equality, Modesty, Uncategorized, women's issues

Modesty 101: How codes are practised illustrate culture and values

By Christine Woolgar

When I started this series on modesty, I honestly wasn’t expecting it to be so loaded with illustrations from Harry Potter. But I keep coming back to these books because J.K. Rowling has a particular talent for illustrating realities in tangible ways. It means she offers a way for readers to identify and grapple with the intangible, invisible, realities of life.

In the previous post I asked what makes dress codes helpful or harmful, concluding that the school uniform at Hogwarts was, on balance, a good thing. In this post I want to look at Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where we see a new professor, Dolores Umbridge enforce the code more strictly. I want to show how her tangible methods reflect her intangible values. (For all posts on modesty, click here.)

‘I will have order’

When the Hogwarts boys wear their shirts hanging out, Dolores Umbridge tucks their shirts back in using a neatness charm.

Umbridgeneatness copy

Is she doing the right thing – and the other teachers are simply too soft? Is she doing the right thing but in the wrong way? Is the result right with the wrong motive? Or is she simply doing the wrong thing?

Let’s start by asking why these boys don’t tuck in their shirts. It’s not because they can’t or haven’t been shown better. Let’s make a guess that on some level they want to signal how they are different to other students; they want to show that they don’t care so very much about passing their exams. Let’s even guess they do want to challenge the teachers’ authority.

When Umbridge tucks their shirts in using a neatness charm, she’s essentially stopping them from making their statement about themselves. But even if we agree that the boys’ statement is not a good one, and even if we agree their message shouldn’t be voiced in this context, or in this way, there are several problems with Umbridge’s action.

For one thing, it’s a bodily consent violation. It teaches the boys that they do not have autonomy over their own bodies.

More importantly, changing their clothes will not change their attitudes. All it will do is show that Umbridge has more power than they do.

Umbridge’s actions also will not serve any collective purpose. The only purpose served by forcing them to look neat is to send a message to other students that non-conformity will not be tolerated.

Lastly, Umbridge is limiting the discretion of other teachers. Previously, each teacher got to decide what conduct they deemed appropriate for their classroom. By enforcing her own standards, Umbridge is also telling the other teachers that her way matters more than theirs.

Admittedly, this single moment when she tucks in the boys’ shirts isn’t enough to form a conclusion. However this is but one moment amongst many others and they all point the same way.

In the film, Umbridge had already done all four of these actions I’ve described when she argues with Professor Mcgonagall.


As part of a detention, Umbridge has made Harry use a quill that literally draws his blood when he writes with it. When Mcgonagall learns of it and challenges this ‘medieval method’, Umbridge asserts her authority. To question her is a political challenge to the Minister of Magic. She has the right to control the bodies of the students – even to the point of harm. She will not tolerate even the slightest voice of dissent. Not even from teachers.

In other words, when Umbridge tucks in these boys’ shirts, she does so because she wants control.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that she grabs more and more power, eventually making herself headmistress.

But she doesn’t just power grab.

She Umbridge uses her power to reshape the culture within Hogwarts – particularly through the rules she enacts. She induces a culture of fear, suspicion and punitive actions because, in her own words (in the film), she believes that “children deserve to be punished.”

(Oh, and notice how she always uses the word ‘children’ when the other teachers say ‘students’.)

But could Umbridge’s heart be in the right place?

Some people can use forceful tactics without realising the harm they cause. There is an art to engaging people persuasively and influencing the efforts of a team. Some people make the mistake of always telling and never asking, when really they should be navigating a spectrum with ‘telling’ at one end and ‘asking’ at the other. This can make them come over as controlling, patronising and inconsiderate.

However, there are several ways you can discern the difference between someone who’s mistaken and someone who’s like Umbridge.

Mistaken people are more likely to:

  • be willing to listen and actually hear other people’s views;
  • not attack others to defend themselves;
  • take responsibility for their actions and apologise;
  • be genuinely concerned once they’re aware of the harmful effects of their actions;
  • demonstrate in other ways that they value other people in the group;
  • use language that indicates respect and confers dignity;
  • lower the stakes in a disagreement, not raise them;
  • adopt different methods of engaging when asked to do so.

Obviously, everyone has their imperfections and individual circumstances can constrain and interfere with how we react. But if someone’s behaving disagreeably and you want to make a guess at what really motivates them, it might help to compare their behaviour with the above bullets.

A different model for leadership

In Harry Potter, the differences you can draw between Umbridge and Mcgonagall are telling. Mcgonagall has a much more relaxed attitude, not because she has lower standards, but because she has no interest in creating her own particular, perfectionist, brand of order.

Dress codes-3

Mcgonagall earnestly cares about the reputation of the school, but this is because she values students and their learning. She is the kind of academic who desires that everyone who wants to be at Hogwarts will have a sense of belonging. However, I dare say she is willing to accept that not every student will feel their place is there. Because of this, her priorities are to offer a safe space of welcome and learning, not make everyone conform to the system.

She therefore doesn’t feel threatened when some of them leave their shirts hanging out. Instead, she acts to defend their wellbeing.

This is really important.

Mcgonagall doesn’t require everyone to be in the academic system; no, she just requires everyone who is already in the system to behave in a way that doesn’t hinder others’ participation. In other words, Mcgonagall’s standards are linked very clearly with the collective and good purposes of the school. Her standards are not about keeping everyone within her sphere of influence. Her heart really is in the right place.

Concluding thoughts

In the previous post I made the case that dress codes can be helpful or harmful, depending on what collective purposes they serve, and whether the code serves or disserves the members of a group.

The point from this post is that it’s not just the code we’ve got to look at, but also how a code is practised. The practice will also illustrate the underlying values and culture of an organisation and the people within it – particularly those who hold positions of power. They might use the code to serve the members of an organisation (Mcgonagall) or they might use the code as a means of coercive social ordering (Umbridge).

Now, I’m hoping that what I’ve said here won’t come as much of a surprise to many Christians.

Jesus cited the laws in the Jewish books of law as being good (“love your neighbour”), but he also slammed the scribal laws and oral traditions (“hate your enemy”). Meanwhile passages like Mark 7:9-13 show Jesus criticising the Pharisees because how they practised the law undermined the principles of the law and perverted justice. We shouldn’t be surprised then to observe Umbridge undermining the student-valuing principles of Hogwarts in how she practices its existing codes. Nor should be surprised when she adds rules of her own.

Jesus pointed at the Pharisees’ offerings, prayers and clothes – not because these were their worst offences, but because these are tangible and visible. Similarly, I’ve started by talking about dress codes: they’re easy to point to and they illustrate the objectives and underlying values.

But make no mistake: my problem is far less with how Umbridge tucks in the boys’ shirts and far more to do with her underlying hatred of children and desire for control. It’s just that attitudes are harder to point to and much harder to prove.

In practical terms, what this means is that when someone objects to a dress code, they are often objecting to the culture and assumptions that surround and implement the code. But if the code is to change – it’s these underlying values that need to shift first.

You’ve got to clean the inside of the cup first, then the outside will be clean. (Matthew 23:26)

Modesty 101 part 3: The practice of codes illustrates values and culture

  • Dress codes are tangible tools that can show values and shape culture
  • When dress codes are used coercively, they are not used in isolation
  • A serving culture has allowances for non-conformity to the system


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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