Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe: an example of poor world-building

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.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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30 Responses to Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe: an example of poor world-building

  1. susanannwall says:

    We’re going to see the movie tonight. I’m going to pay close attention to see if there is some sort of reveal in the story about the robe! Maybe there’s an explanation! ;-)

  2. termitespeaker says:

    Interesting and informative post, as always! I’m going to recommend it to my worldbuilding groups! (And reading this comment over, it sounds like a piece of spam, but you know I’m not a spammer! LOL)

  3. rainexpert says:

    My twenty-something son came out of the midnight showing of An Unexpected Journey coveting Bilbo’s bathrobe. I suppose the mathom-giving culture of hobbits might have different values for such things as patchwork than we do. Remember that they are loathe to throw much of anything away, and tend toward thriftiness. I say that the robe is well within the range of cultural possibilities.

    • I hadn’t considered the mathom aspect. (but given your first remark, I’m now wondering if the robe is, in fact, product placement).

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Chris says:

      Concur with the mathom culture aspect of the robe. What better way to remember your great grandfather and his sixteen brothers than have a robe made from their waistcoats and jaunting jackets? Also, Tolkien does state that Hobbits are fond of bright clothing; and the pictures he drew of Bilbo indicate that this style of robe is entirely in keeping not only with eccentric Bilbo, but with Hobbits in general.

      Also let’s also not forget one thing: that the Shire sits at the crossroads of a couple major trade routes: the great highway running from the Havens and into the unknown East; and the road that heads south down into Gondor. Surely sómeone travels those roads with a pack of cloth and trinkets and so forth on his donkey’s back! I think it is entirely reasonable to speculate that foreign cloth is imported to the Shire, at least to some extent, and that bits of it end up being patched together in this way.

      The only thing that I’d take issue with is the bit about Bilbo having a weaver girl friend. I think it’s pretty safe to say Bilbo never had any kind of romantic relationship, and I think Tolkien says as much by stressing his bachellorhood in a culture that prizes family relationships and marriage and children. Bilbo would definitely have been the odd hobbit out in this regard. As for Bilbo having a fling or an ex or anything of that sort — I’m sure those sorts of modern arrangements would not have crossed Tolkien’s mind, to say nothing of Bilbo’s!

      Finally, I would note that Jackson is allowed to exercise his own creative judgement and artistic license! Tolkien never left us with a Middle Earth analog of a Sears Catalog — we just don’t know every minute detail of his world and the clothing styles in it. I think the producers and directors are well within rights to fill in the gaps. Mind you, this isn’t easy with such a well put together and highly detailed world as Tolkien’s is. I think they did a pretty good job with LotR, and look forward to seeing H as well – patchwork robe and all!

      • Thanks for commenting!

        I would feel better about the robe as being a mathom or even of local hobbit make if the fabric seemed worn or faded in any way. Not only do the pieces appear to be in mint condition (suggesting they were not taken from existing garments), the garment as a whole is in perfect shape as well, leaving little sense that Bilbo (or anyone else) has been wearing it for years.

        OTOH, if one considers the Shire as a crossroads, the idea that Bilbo would possess a coat made from bits and pieces of fabric from other lands could serve as an intriguing hint that he truly does have the Tookish spirit inside.

  4. Dan says:

    I think that the idea of the Shire as having a dedicated fabric mills is not that unbelievable (at least as far as Jackson’s movies are concerned). Fashion-wise, the hobbits are certainly rooted firmly in the 18th Century, so I could see their textile industry having advanced to around that point especially since they have no preoccupations militarily. Furthermore, their attitude toward clothing is far less utilitarian than any other race, save for the less well-off hobbits (like Sam’s heavy wool).

    I would point out that patchwork is not at all uncommon amongst monied (albeit 20th-21st Century) individuals. Brooks Brothers’ infamous “fun” shirt was assembled from scrap cloth and sold on a whim, and it actually caught on. I think it’s conceivable that, in a similar vein, the weavers for wealthy families like the Brandybucks Tooks would have leftover scraps of their richest cloths. Or, perhaps it’s composed of older clothing items from his own wardrobe or that of his deceased parents. But I do think the coat reflects Bilbo’s slightly eccentric, but still down-home, mindset of the time.

    Regardless, this was a blast to read! I am utterly enamored of that coat and found this as one of the first search results for it. Thanks for your discussion!

    • Thanks for your reply!

      My supposition that they don’t have mills is mainly based on Tolkien’s apparent abhorrence for all things industrial. I’m greatly amused that comments are so far running high in favor of the robe!

  5. RePacthIt says:

    I saw this blog when looking for pics or info about the robe; I absolutely loved it and to me it felt completely right.. I can understand the arguments, but is there anything more cozy, warm and carefully arranged than a hobbit hole? And isn’t that the superlatives you’d also use for a patchwork garment like the one he’s wearing? I make patchwork and quilts and I would love to know who made Bilbo’s bathrobe (in real life, not the fictionary – though I like the idea of an Elf doing patchwork). It made me happy enough to not walk out when I saw what PJ did with Azog… Anyhow, I didn’t find any pictures of it – if someone has a link to a nice close-up I’d love to see it :)

  6. William says:

    The robe is quite beautiful actually after seeing the film. As someone who works in props and costumes for film i’m curious if anyone who worked on the film will see your over analyzed article and laugh, then think about how blessed they are to have worked on such an epic film and feel blessed that their lives don’t boil down to writings such as this.

    • Thanks for visiting. I’d be interested to know how the costumers consider world-building in their approach to design for a project like this.
      I don’t deny that the robe is a thing of beauty, and I think I made my perspective on this matter pretty clear: I am a fantasy author who is working toward a more rigorous approach to the genre. That means everything adds up to create a coherent picture of the world and culture the author (in this case, the filmmaker) is trying to build. I don’t feel this garment is a reflection of that, in the same way that I’m annoyed when a book cover for a pseudo-medieval world shows a character wearing blue jeans.

  7. Superb blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost
    on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go
    for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m completely confused .. Any ideas? Thank you!

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      Personally, I always start free unless the paid version of the thing seems to have a lot more going for it. If you know you’re going to want the bells and whistles, it may be worth paying from the start, just so you can get everything you want in place rather than have to retro-fit if you need different functionality later. I also find the free version is simple and easy to work with.

  8. Sarah Clark says:

    IMHO It’s an homage to Arthur Dent. :-)

  9. Years before the story of The Hobbit takes place in Middle Earth, there was the realm of Arnor to the north of the Shire. Arnor was pretty important, as it was founded by Gondor. If I recall correctly, there was even some dispute between Arnor and Gondor about the line of kings — whether the line went through one of the Gondor kings or through one of the Arnor kings. Arnor was finally destroyed by the Witch-King of Angmar, who later became a Ring wraith. And so Arnor was no more when The Hobbit takes place.

    So to me it is quite likely that Bree was on the main road between Arnor and Gondor. It seems concievable that along such a road, many merchants would travel, and that some of those merchants might sell fabric at a stay in Bree.

    And the Baggins family was quite well respected, so they had money. I’m sure the Bagginses could have afforded some nice fabric, even before Bilbo went to get all that dragon gold.

    Oh, and Angmar never bothered the Shire because of the Rangers — Aragorn’s kin.

  10. Blue Canary says:

    Wonderful blog, and a very interesting post here. I’ve very much enjoyed reading both your thoughts on cohesive world-building, and the wonderful and thoughtful comments from other readers. Just to throw one more perspective into the mix, re: Bilbo’s Bathrobe…

    When I watched the movie and saw Bilbo’s robe, my first response was almost precisely opposite yours. I thought, “How perfect! How wonderful that the costumers put so much thought into getting that detail so exactly right!” And I, too, was thinking of my family’s history with quilting.

    Patchwork may have its history in thriftiness and need, and certainly that was one reason my grandmother, great grandmother and great aunt all sewed patchwork. However, they also saw it as a relaxing hobby, a way to add to their families’ comfort, and a means of adding color and cheerfulness to the home. If it also proved resourcefulness and fit their tight budgets, that was a bonus, but my grandmother continued to sew patchwork long after she could afford to buy new fabric specially for that purpose, and she often still used scrap, even when there was no financial need. (After all, new fabrics don’t yet have stories to tell.) She made more elaborate quilts, too, with intricate patterns and some with whole panels of embroidery, but with those one always had to take extra care, not letting food or children’s grubby fingers near them. Patchwork, on the other hand, was what one could pull out to wrap up by the fire on a chilly day, or spread on the lawn for a picnic. It was simple enough that she could teach me to sew it from the time I was five years old, and complex enough that I’ve never tired of the form. Patchwork was (and is) warm, and comfortable, simple yet lovely, cheerful and homey and bright, and what could be more hobbity than that?

    A craft at once resourceful and cozy, artistic and nostalgic, cheerful and lovely and fine… A robe pieced together, but from fabrics rich and beautiful, and all of them soft… Seems to me like something a home-loving, well-to-do hobbit could wear with comfort and pride!

    (And yes, I admit it: I found this blog looking for anything I could find about this robe. As soon as I can find the right fabrics, I hope I’ll be stitching one like to wear in my own chilly ‘hobbit hole’!)

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your insights. I hadn’t thought of quilting in terms of the atmospheric or poetic effect: that the fact of patchwork cloth evokes ideas of comfort which speak well to the spirit of Hobbits.

  11. richard says:

    I wonder if there is a link to the actor’s other film in which he wears a dressing gown throughout?

    • Mwa-ha-ha! you think the actor is simply a dressing-gown aficionado run wild? Hobbit 2 comes out pretty soon–wonder if he’ll be reunited with this garment.

      Thanks for reading!

  12. I think you have a point – or would have one. He’s well off, yes, but they’re simply folk. His home is coveted, yes, but it’s also been in his family for generations. He doesn’t really come into wealth until The Hobbit takes place. He’s just got a sort of inheritance. I might also point out that the robe isn’t haphazardly patched, but ACTUALLY quilted. WETA pay attention to details – it’s their job – and this piece wasn’t meant to be patched, but quilted. This has been handstitched and made just for him perhaps by a relative, friend, or simply purchased that way. They’re simple folk – farming, food, ale, and making things for themselves and others. They hardly trade with the ‘Big Folk’ and only a few daring Hobbits ever leave the Shire and surrounding areas. They do things for themselves and eachother, and I find it hard to believe that in the era they live in they couldn’t possible have come up with the idea of quilting for sport. And as well off as the Bagginses are, I would imagine that a gift of such an item – a comfortable robe that would doubtlessly fit him unless he were to get enormous (suggesting a gift from an admirer of relative not often seen) and hand crafted for his pleasure (let’s be honest, famous and well-off people are often given nice things for nothing despite the fact that they could easily afford them) would make a suitable gift for such a person as him.

    I just think it’s a little bit too close-minded to possibly say that they couldn’t have decided to quilt for fun and aesthetic, and only for patchwork. They make most of their things themselves, including their homes, they excavate their homes themselves if a new home is needed, every Hobbit has a skill of some kind, and quilting, when it comes down to it, is simply a form of cloth work – clothing, upholstery – Bilbo has a few upholstered chairs in his home, afterall. I really think you’re looking far too closely at it, and it is far from poor world-building. Far, far from it.

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      The idea that they could develop the idea of quilting for fun is certainly valid, but I still have some concerns about the variety, quality, and type of cloth the robe is made from (it isn’t patched, it’s patchwork–created deliberately from a wide variety of fabrics). My point in general is that I don’t believe the choice of this garment supports the atmosphere that Weta are trying to create for this corner of Middle Earth–exactly the kind of close-knit, simple society you describe. Rather, the robe and the materials used to create it suggests a series of concepts that lie outside of the Shire in a way that I don’t think was intentional.

  13. Pingback: A Hobbit Fan’s Ire, More Fierce than Fire | E. C. Ambrose

  14. Chris says:

    I was googling Bilbo’s Robe because it’s one of my favorite pieces in all of Peter Jackson’s adaptations. Even with my bias and love for the robe aside, I must say this may well be the nitpickiest, nerdiest, most ridiculous criticism of any movie element I’ve ever read online. I laugh at your obsessiveness.

    • Thanks for your remarks. I do take some pride in being a tad obsessive and nerdy about worldbuilding. In my quest to close the loop on this, I’ve also asked a textile historian for a guest blog about the piece. . .

  15. Sarah W says:

    If one looks at our own Western culture, patchwork dressing (or smoking) gowns becomes a bit of a fashion for middle class men during the 19th century, so I’d say it’s very plausible for Bilbo to wear one. Here are a couple of extant examples:
    http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=243990&search=dressing+gown&images=&c=&s=

    http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/159591

    I do like it when people really consider the background story of a character/culture when making costumes, be it historical, fantasy or sci-fi (so I read your post with much interest), and for the most part, I feel they’ve done a good job in all of the Middle Earth movies.

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