We know from the question "How did the house elves start serving wizards?" that it is not sure when was house elves enslaved, so we probably don't know the evolution of the rule in the past.

But the rule is pretty strange, right? I mean, why clothes? Why not any gift for example?

I see more options here:

  1. House elves made the rule by themselves in the long past (and the rule is powerful because generations of house elves believe in it) – it is in their heads, that is why Dobby could be freed in the little controversy way, he just persuaded himself (Malfoy didn't want to give him sock, it wasn't even his).

  2. The rule is magically made by the original slave master, the rules are made by him (then the question again is: Why clothes? How does it work exactly? What could be his intention?)

  3. The rule is something from nature, house elves are born with it. That would mean that they were born (or created?) to serve wizards. Which leads to other questions: Was it always like that? Clothes aren't exactly nature invention. Is there any other way to free them (maybe clothes are just subset of possible ways)?

To sum up

How does the rule work? Is it some of these options? Is there another way to free a house elf?

  • For why it's clothes, House Elves wear rags and so could be to symbolise a fresh start, to replace the rags and for any number of other reasons but clothes does seem to make sense at least.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 10:54
  • 1
    @TheLethalCarrot I always thought that the implication goes the opposite direction, I mean that they were rags because they cannot have clothes (because it would free them). But I may be wrong.
    – TGar
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 11:15
  • You have an "options" section in your question, why? Are you looking for speculation, in this case it is off-topic here, or are you looking for canonical answers, in this case this section has no real purpose and is is only counterproductive, making people read more text and enabling pointless discussion.
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 12:29
  • @Raditz_35 The intention was to show, what is possible in general and I could think about. But I don't have any proof for any of them. Probably, I wanted to show, that I thought about the theme, but I didn't came up with anything undoubtedly correct (you could call it research). But if you think it doesn't belong there, feel free to provide some changes.
    – TGar
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 12:59
  • 1
    I understood the rule to be tied into the mythology of brownies, where giving a suit of clothes was insulting to the faery, causing it to leave in a huff (or possibly lash out, depending on how insulted it was). I recall reading that other too-generous gifts. like food or crafts, could provoke the same result. Not sure why, exactly, maybe something about misjudging the value of their labor or crossing the line from appreciation to payment, or perhaps the offer-er appearing to judge its appearance, but it does seem to be a typical part of the lore.
    – Megha
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 6:18

1 Answer 1


The rule isn't clothes per se - it's ownership. Clothes specifically were picked to demonstrate servitude because they are the most visible and noticeable objects to observers.

I explain the rules pretty clearly here (mostly fact, some headcanon). I feel that the impossibility of house-elves to own clothes shows that they are subject to someone else's whims and are not there own property. (Interestingly, this was how ancient Jewish law viewed it as well - a slave was not allowed to own anything of any kind, to demonstrate servitude.)

Why clothes? There isn't much evidence, but we do have one quote from Dobby: COS CH 21:

He blew his nose on a corner of the filthy pillowcase he wore, looking so pathetic that Harry felt his anger ebb away in spite of himself. “Why d’you wear that thing, Dobby?” he asked curiously. “This, sir?” said Dobby, plucking at the pillowcase. “ ’Tis a mark of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir.

Clothes are immediately observable which leads to public knowledge. This also explains why Dobby wears all his clothes at once - it demonstrates he's a free elf:

GOF Ch. 21:

When Dobby had worked for the Malfoys, he had always worn the same filthy old pillowcase. Now, however, he was wearing the strangest assortment of garments Harry had ever seen; he had done an even worse job of dressing himself than the wizards at the World Cup. He was wearing a tea cozy for a hat, on which he had pinned a number of bright badges; a tie patterned with horseshoes over a bare chest, a pair of what looked like children’s soccer shorts, and odd socks. One of these, Harry saw, was the black one Harry had removed from his own foot and tricked Mr. Malfoy into giving Dobby, thereby setting Dobby free. The other was covered in pink and orange stripes.

Conversely, this explains why

[No other elves] will clean Gryffindor Tower any more, not with the hats and socks hidden everywhere, they finds them insulting, sir. Dobby does it all himself, sir.

Since the only way to go free is with a public display of private clothes, peer pressure of a sort causes house-elves to feel embarrassed to go free. (That's why Winky stuck to her old garment - unlike Dobby, she was embarassed.)

  • Ok, I get why it is ownership. But I still don't know where does the rule come from. Does it mean the rule is really just in elves' heads?
    – TGar
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 21:47
  • Bec owners need something visible. As to where it came from, that's a dupe of scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/60922/…
    – TheAsh
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 2:09
  • Sorry, I didn't express myself well. I don't mean historically "came from". I mean what is the reason why the rule works. If it is from just in the minds of elves, or if it is a magic or what. Where it is "coming from" right now?
    – TGar
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 20:08

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