Like many of you, I am excited to see the new film(s) based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’ve been following its production from a distance, and was interested to read the Wall Street Journal review of the film that showed up in today’s paper. However, I found myself utterly stopped by the top image.
If you click through above, you will find it about half-way down the page. The photo is of Bilbo Baggins standing by a dwarf in the kitchen at Bag End. But what gets me is his bathrobe. Yes, I am going to criticize the wardrobe choice of a fictional character–well, actually, of the director and artists who brought the character to life. You see, Bilbo is wearing a dressing gown made of richly patterned piecework, with a velvet collar and cuffs. It’s very nice, very attractive–and very wrong.
What is E. C. going on about now, you may ask? Let me explain. Bilbo is well-off. He’s got a huge hobbit hole to himself, with many pantries and wardrobes, all of which seem to be filled. We know his pedigree, and the fact that his home is coveted by other hobbits. I’d say he’s upper middle class, at least. For his area, he’s got to be close to the top of the social order. But the garment he’s wearing tells us a very confusing story for those interested in material culture as an indicator of wealth and status.
So let’s talk for a moment about quilting. My mother is a quilter. Today, this is an expensive hobby in which thousands of (mostly) women purchase small pieces of specially-made fabric and turn them into bedding, wall-hangings, and garments. It is a display of wealth simply to gather all of those fabrics. Assembling a pieced fabric takes a lot of time–another display of wealth because it implies the leisure to design and create the fabric. (Obviously, there are many quilters who are using scraps of fabric and scraps of time and I don’t mean to imply otherwise.)
However, the history of patchwork is a different thing entirely. It is founded, not in the leisure activity and disposable income of a well-off population, but in the use-every-scrap, recycling required by a scrimping-and-saving approach to materials. It is called “patchwork” for a reason: it likely began with simply adding patches of fabric over holes and worn areas to extend the use of garments and bedding. If you examine the use of cloth as an indicator of wealth, patchwork suggests a parsimonious approach to materials, the intention to preserve the garment for years of use.
The deliberate assembly of small bits of material as an embellishment or full-cloth requires the labor of many hours, probably by women, then as now. It’s hard to research this online because many sites use “quilting” and “patchwork” interchangeably: they’re not, as my mother is fond of pointing out, “quilting” refers to stitching together layers of fabric (as was done to create the padding worn under medieval armor), but the fabric isn’t necessarily pieced together.
Bilbo’s era likely did have the attitude of preservation of materials–there’s no industrialized textile mills to churn out the product, rather every inch of fabric they use is being handwoven by someone. So they do need to be careful about their usage, and I would not be surprised to see hobbits in general with patched clothing. Note there is a difference between “patched” and “patchwork.” But given Bilbo’s social standing and evident wealth, would he wear patches? Not likely.
Given the distance of the Shire from any discernible port, city or trading company, even a hobbit of means like Bilbo would be somewhat limited in his choices, and his clothing is likely to be locally made. In spite of that limitation, the bathrobe in question features at least a dozen different kinds of textiles, mostly of very high-status types (velvets, metallics, brocades). Where is this stuff coming from? It’s not being made in Hobbiton–to whom would the weavers sell the product? Not Gaffer Gamgee, that’s for sure!
This garment is exactly the kind of thing that pops up in fantasy fiction all the time to defy the reality of the world that the author is trying to create: it fails to reflect the culture that supposedly created it, or the character who is wearing it. Consumers of fantasy might not articulate what’s wrong with it, but it creates subliminal expectations of the society and its levels of wealth and technology that distract from the immersive experience we look for in fantasy.
What makes this slip especially disappointing is the very careful attention director Peter Jackson gave to the textiles in “The Lord of the Rings” films, when a weaving studio was employed to create the special weave of the Elven cloaks. For those films, many garments were produced in two different materials, one coarse and one fine, to reinforce the changes of scale between hobbits and larger folk.
Bilbo does have leisure time–he has no employment that we know of–so maybe he is a closet quilter himself who has carefully saved pieces of all of his favorite fine garments as they wear out, then lovingly arranged them to make himself this robe, which he would never wear in public, but enjoys in the privacy and modesty of his own home.
In the spirit of Christmas, I have come up with an alternate explanation: Bilbo has a weaver-girlfriend who works for the elves and saved all their scraps to make him this robe.