Essay by Katy Colby
He took off his party clothes, folded up and wrapped in tissue paper his embroidered silk waistcoat, and put it away. Then he put on quickly some old untidy garments, and fastened round his waist a worn leather belt. On it he hung a short sword in a battered black-leather scabbard. From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he took out an old cloak and hood. They had been locked up as if they were very precious, but they were so patched and weatherstained that their original colour could hardly be guessed: it might have been dark green.
A Long Expected Party, The Fellowship Of The Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
Why should we care about the clothing worn by characters in fantasy stories? For the purposes of enjoyment and appreciation of the author’s vision, does it matter what our heroes and their adversaries are adventuring in? I say yes. Clothing can help us understand people who live in cultures and climates that are very different from anything we have experienced. Beyond that, clothing is a clear advertisement of the character’s place in his or her society. Clothing is more than just pretty scenery, although it is also an important part of the setting that must be seen if we want to enjoy the full experience of the story the author is setting for us.
Sadly, the fabrics used by our characters are often overlooked in authors’ descriptions of the worlds they create. This is hardly surprising. In our modern world, textiles are so ever-present that, unless the cloth is particularly nice or unusually nasty, we rarely spare them a thought. Clothing, blankets, towels, bedding, drapes; all these are available cheaply and easily at our favorite stores. There is rarely a question over what we will wear at any given moment, and, if we need something new, we don’t have to spend more than half an hour before it’s ours. Familiarity has bred contempt for our clothing. When we couple our lack of intrinsic knowledge with the authors’ dearth of description, we end up with characters that could be running around in nothing but their own skins. Assuming we don’t care to picture all our characters naked, (and let’s not even get into Orcs, please!) this means our mental pictures are somewhat lacking.
I don’t suggest that authors intentionally give us an unsatisfying reading experience; I believe they just do not think about this part of the world they create. You rarely read a description of the way a door opens, either, because in our world most doors open the same way and we do not have to think about it.
Here ends my muse on modern life and begins a study on the realities of fabric in the pre-modern world. Have I put you to sleep yet?
Since the Fantasy genre is so large that I cannot think to include every author, I am concentrating on the works of two particular favorites for this series of essays. J.R.R. Tolkien is widely considered to be the father of High Fantasy as we know it today, and George R.R. Martin is sometimes titled the “modern Tolkien.” Both authors give us worlds that are realistic enough we could find ourselves stepping into them and feeling perfectly at home, minus a few odd elements like dragons and direwolves. Thus, I will focus our study of fabrics in fantasy novels on the worlds of Arda and Planetos, as these authors have described them. Both settings give us pre-modern technology; Middle-earth dances between the dark ages culture of the Orcs and the Victorian world of the Shire, while Planetos wanders through the early Renaissance period, with its beginning steps into the use of mechanics in place of human muscle. The primitive cultures beyond the Wall and on the Dothraki Sea would fit cleanly into this period also, as these disparities of technology and social setting existed in our world up through the early twentieth century.
There is one more issue to cover before we get into the meat of this topic. How do we handle the various races our authors people their worlds with? No scientists have, as yet, made any effort to include Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Hobbits, or Children of the Forest in any studies of the values of clothing in survival situations. No doubt this lack will eventually be addressed, but, for now, we will have to make do with the information we have. To help us along, we will consider any race of mammals that walk upright, have opposable thumbs, and are not covered in a thick pelt of hair, as if they were humans. I realize that Elves, Dwarves, and Children of the Forest have some physical tolerances that differ from ours. For simplicity, close will have to be good enough. We will not look at non-mammal races like Balrogs and The Others, however. They are a little too far outside reasonable parameters, and should have their own paper entirely to themselves.
The study of fabrics and clothing could easily fill several large textbooks. To help keep this manageable, our study will be broken into several small parts. The first will cover what we can learn about cultures from the clothing they wear, and, at the same time, what we can deduce about the clothing worn based on what we already know about the environment and culture. Later, we will explore the fibers available to the various cultures. Finally, we will put our knowledge to work with a look at the specific roles played by the characters’ clothing that altered the story in their favor (or not!) Now that we know where we’re going, let’s start on our path.
Why do we wear clothes? This is not as silly a question as it might seem. Throughout human history there have been cultures that accepted nudity as normal. Sometimes, as with the Celtic tribes of northern Europe, clothing was optional when doing messy work, when the weather was warm, for young children who would outgrow their clothing quickly, or, notoriously, when going to war. Before contact with Europeans, many Pacific Island tribes wore little or no clothing due to their warm climate and the lack of comfortable materials to make clothing from.
Any textile, whether made from synthetic fibers or natural materials, is not simple to produce. The fibers must first be cleaned and carded, and then spun, woven, knitted, and/or felted. Skins must be softened and preserved; a process that even today involves hot, heavy work in foul smelling conditions. Then the pieces of the garment must be cut from the fabric, stitched together, fitted, finished, and usually decorated. Less than a century ago, much of the clothing worn by all but the wealthiest people was produced in the home and sewing was an expected skill for a housewife. I get tired just thinking about the added work. The fact that people went to the trouble to produce textiles and sew the lengths of woven fabric into something wearable tells us that clothing is not just a convenience, but a necessity.
Clothing does, of course, protect us from temperature, moisture, and physical damage. Without the protection of fabrics, humans are able to survive within a narrow range of temperatures, between 25 C (77 F) and approximately 37.778 C (100 F.). One degree above this range and our vital organs begin to overheat. One degree below it and hypothermia sets in. The farther the air temperature is from our zone of safety, the more quickly the damage becomes unrecoverable.
Exposure to moisture for as little as 13 continuous hours can leave our skin blistered, with open sores and flaking layers. Parasites and bacteria that live in standing water can easily infect the damaged skin. If the moisture is caused by our own sweat, the salts and waste products it carries will irritate the skin still further. If you want pictures, and have a very strong stomach, Google images of ‘trench foot’. Don’t blame me; I did warn.
The ravages of temperature and moisture are only the beginning of the dangers our bodies are prey to. Our skin is our armor against infection and disease. Any puncture, cut, tear, burn, or scratch opens the defense and lets in trouble if trouble is there. Think for a moment about what stones, thorns, sharp rocks, sand, and ice will do to unprotected skin. Then, there are the bites, claws, and stings from the animals our ancestors faced in their attempts to get food and avoid becoming dinner themselves. No wonder clothing became the norm for most of the cultures in our world.
Our clothing also protects us from many things not encountered in nature. The occupational hazards of everyday life may differ from person to person, but the necessity of protective clothing is a common theme through all cultures and most practical professions. A blacksmith wears a heavy leather apron, thick gloves, and leather boots to guard himself from heat, sparks, and the wear of swinging hammers and gripping tongs. Carpenters also wear gloves, and usually broad hats to protect their faces from flying splinters and sun. The cap and apron worn by homemakers and maids served to keep vermin that lived in the mattresses and wall covering out of their hair, and guarded hands from burns when necessary. Today, soldiers, police, and fire fighters all wear protective covering, of course. Besides guarding their lives, this clothing helps the rest of us spot them quickly in an emergency. This brings us to the second reason we wear clothing – to advertise our status.
Clothing broadcasts our position to all around us. The crown upon a king’s head, the robes of a judge, the baggy denims worn by a street tough, all serve the same purpose; to declare the wearer’s place and authority to society at large. Clothing has a code we learn when young, without ever being formally taught to decipher it. Besides the accessories that mark our leaders, the fabric and cut of garments signal the position of the person they are on. Color can indicate both wealth and leadership position; royal purple was once so expensive that only kings could afford it, and white fabric was a luxury out of the reach of most middle-class families. Decorated fabrics, whether they are dyed, embroidered, or embellished with beads and buttons, reveal that someone has both spare cash to waste some on useless pleasure and spare time to devote to the art. If the person does not do the work themselves, they have to pay to have it done, which indicates even more wealth expended on the item.
The cut of the clothes, regardless of their fabric or trim, tells us more about the position of the person wearing them than any other factor. In general, the more fashionable and expensive a garment is the more useless it makes the wearer. This has been true as long as people have been wearing clothes. The toga worn by Roman patricians was nothing more than nine yards of wool, held together by their left arm. This effectively immobilized the arm, and made the slave that followed them a necessity. The stiff, boned corsets worn by women wealthy enough to have servants made it impossible for them to bend at the waist or breathe properly, effectively crippling them. In today’s world, the pencil skirt and pumps worn by female executives, and the jacket and smooth soled shoes worn by gentlemen, serve the same purpose. The people so attired cannot run, bend, lift any weight, or reach above their shoulders without embarrassing themselves.
Finally, clothing indicates the social condition of the events around us. We all know what it means when our immediate supervisor puts on his jacket and straightens his tie before he goes to a meeting, even if we don’t see the corporate executives enter the building. If a dinner invitation specifies “black tie”, we expect a formal setting, with at least two extra pieces of silver and glasses. On the other hand, most of us would feel very uncomfortable wearing a business suit to a company picnic and we would make those around us equally uncomfortable if they were in casual clothing. The formality of our attire broadcasts the mood of an event.
There is one more reason we wear clothing, although it speaks more to the type of garment than to the existence of the clothing. We wear what feels good. Fabrics that are uncomfortable last only as long as there is no effective replacement. How many of us remember the polyesters of the 1970s? Right!
To be fair, pride or necessity can override our liking for comfort. If raw wool is all you can get, and the climate is too warm or cold for you to survive without clothing, then you wear raw wool. Samite taffeta (fine silk woven with metallic threads) is shimmery, beautiful, and feels like a steel wool pad. Still, when the cost of a yard of this fabric would cover a week’s grocery bill for a family of four, people who can afford it will wear it and with pride.
As we look at a fantasy culture with little clothing description, we can work out what they are wearing by considering the climate and geography where they live and how they live in their society. The more extreme the climate and the rougher the geography, the more work will be put into clothing construction. It does not take much imagination to see that people who live in rocky landscape will take the time to put padding and thick soles on their shoes, while people who live in soft grass or dense woods may wear soft shoes or even go barefoot, temperatures permitting. Growing seasons and moisture dictate what fibers can be harvested in specific places. Cotton and silk, for example, need warmer climates than linen does.
The effects of economy on clothing are more complex. Archeologists love to study clothing, since it reveals so much about the culture of the people who wore it and the circumstances they lived in. The more tailored and complex the garment, the longer it takes to make. Also, the more advanced a culture is the more innovation will be put into clothing construction. Since innovation takes time, and the time spent to alter traditional styles and decorate garments cannot be spent doing anything else, tailored and decorated clothing means that a society had spare work hours to put into non-essential activities. Technology and organization in a culture usually mean that there are human work hours to spare, since machines do much of the essential work with little human help.
Of course, excess work hours can also come from an excess of available labor instead of improved technology. The Dothraki, and their horses, wear intricately painted, jeweled, and stitched clothing, but they have an unlimited supply of human labor in the form of slaves. The Elves of Middle-earth would also have a virtually unlimited supply of human (Elven?) labor, since they are virtually immortal. We must keep what we know of the culture in mind as we consider the clothing they wear.
Thus, we can safely conclude that if Hobbits have mantle clocks they have the ability to create treadle sewing machines and large floor looms. The large communities we see Hobbits living in, complete with extended family groups, tell us that they can assemble community work easily and probably enjoy it. It seems likely that Hobbits would have large weaving sheds in their villages, where people gathered to weave together and even work on flying-shuttle looms that can create wider fabrics than would be possible if a single weaver had to shift the shuttle alone. If we follow our line of reason, we deduce that Hobbits wardrobes would consist of fitted clothing, with each garment made up of several pieces, all cut from a large section of cloth to fit a specific person or body type. Thanks to the relative ease with which Hobbits make clothing, it is likely that their fashions changed frequently, although the changes were probably small. This could look something like the lapels on a jacket being a bit larger or smaller from one year to the next, or sleeves being cut with more or less fullness. Over time, the combination of the many little changes would mean that useful clothing would be out of style after a few years so the fashion-conscious Hobbit would need to replace his or her wardrobe regularly. No doubt the outdated garments would be passed down to neighbors who were not as well off, so the style of clothing worn would mark the social place of any Hobbit clearly to any observer.
For an alternate example from the same fictional world, we can look at the Elves. Elves seem to be artistic, but we do not see labor-saving devices in the glimpses we get of their home life. This tells us that Elves have little interest in making domestic tasks easier, thus they probably do not have either sewing machines or flying-shuttle looms. If their looms can be no wider than the arm span of a single person, their fabrics are narrower. We also know that Elves are an artistic people, and probably not inclined to spend much time repairing stress tears in their clothing when that mundane task would rob time from more stimulating projects. Thus, it is sensible to picture Elves in loose, flowing robes with few seams, since clothing wears out most quickly at the seams and sewing seams is tedious work. On the other hand, we know that some Elves spend a lot of time in forests, on horseback, or in armor. They would need more fitted, hardier clothing for multiple reasons, chafing not the least of them. Elves might well have had various ideas of fashion, depending on what they were doing and where they were going. Finally, Elves are immortal and do not welcome change in their surroundings, as we know from what we see in Lothlorien, Rivendell, and Doriath. From this, we can guess that Elf fashions do not change much if at all from one century to the next. Well-stitched garments made of durable fibers like silk and linen, could last for decades, leaving time for more of what Elves might consider “the good stuff.”
As we look at fashion and fiber construction in various groups, we must consider the needs of the society we are studying. Obviously, the Night’s Watch in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series would have different requirements for warmth and protection than the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but the worlds both stories take us to have very similar natural laws. Heat burns, cold freezes, water soaks, impact bruises or cuts, and all of these cause discomfort. We can assume that whatever clothing our characters wear is constructed to protect them from the damage they regularly encounter. In practical terms, this will mean that the Night’s Watch would be equipped with thick wools from the skin out, probably topped by waxed leather to better shed water and shield from wind. Sturdy boots, made large so as not to squeeze feet covered by a double layer of thick wool socks, and waterproofed with tallow or beeswax, would be essential. Hats or hoods of wool or fur would also be a necessity, probably inside as well as outside due to the cold. Exposed skin, even so much as fingertips, ears, or noses, would soon be painfully frozen, useless, and no doubt amputated.
J.R.R. Tolkien does not give us much description of what the characters in his books are wearing, so we are left to our own devices. Tolkien tells us that Dwarves are between four and five feet tall, immensely strong, but inclined to grow fat in old age if their circumstances permit it. Given basic knowledge of mammal biology in our world, this tells us that Dwarves have a very high muscle-to-body-size ratio, and probably dense, hard bones that can withstand shock well. We also know that Dwarves have a high tolerance for heat, but they are not immune to burns. With lots of muscle, Dwarves will have a higher body temperature but little natural padding unless they get fat. This means their joints are going to suffer damage with every step they take, and the shock may run to the top of their spines. The solution: thick, well cushioned socks that are probably double-knit on the sole and possibly even padded inserts in their shoes. Wool is an excellent insulator, as we know because it keeps us warm in cold weather. The same properties make it highly desirable when working with forges and fire, because it will keep the wearer cool just as it keeps the wearer warm. We would be safe in guessing that Dwarves wear wool from the skin out when at home, as they live underground and spend much time mining or working with metals; the eternal coolness of a mine would sap even their abilities to maintain temperature. We can also assume that they wear sturdy shoes while working, probably with reinforced toes. These would be necessary to protect them from impact and accidental burns should whatever they are forging fall, and to provide solid footing in mines where the tunnels can be slippery. Their heads would not necessarily need a heavy covering, given the thickness of their hair and the lack of severe cold in their environment, but they probably wore leather gloves to protect their hands from abrasion and heat while working. When not working, Dwarves might well wear comfortable, embellished fabrics but they would probably not go long without the padding on their feet.
Clothing is a necessity for human survival and, since we see fantasy races coming into the stories fully dressed, we can assume it is necessary for their survival as well. The lack of clear description of the clothing worn by characters will not stop us from forming a clear picture of their wardrobe, since we know enough about the climate the characters live in and how their societies operate. In my next section, I will look at the advantages and disadvantages of the four most common natural fibers used for clothing; specifically wool, silk, linen, and cotton. I hope I’ve given you enough to think about until then.
 Grossman, Lev. “George R.R. Martin’s Dance with Dragons: A Masterpiece Worthy of Tolkien. Time Magazine. July 07, 2011. Time, Inc. New York. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081774,00.html
 Ross, David, Celtic Britain (The Iron Age – 600 BC – 50 AD), Britain Express, accessed 2/17/15. http://www.britainexpress.com/History/Celtic_Britain.htm
 Arthur, Linda B., Southeastern Islands and the Pacific Asia: History of Dress, lovetoknow, accessed 2/17/15. http://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-around-world/southeastern-islands-pacific-asia-history-dress
 Dennis O’Neil, Adapting to Climate Extremes, Human Biological Adaptability: An Introduction to Human Responses to Common Environmental Stresses, 2012, accessed 3/12/15, http://anthro.palomar.edu/adapt/adapt_2.htm
 Trench Foot or Immersion Foot, Disaster Recovery Fact Sheet, Natural Disasters and Severe Weather, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2014, accessed 3/12/15. http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/trenchfoot.asp
 Kelly Tweeddale, The Good (and Not So Good) Effects of Sweat on Your Skin, Stack Fitness, Fox Sports Digital, August 2013, accessed 20 March 2015. http://www.stack.com/2013/08/27/effects-of-sweat-on-skin/
 Roman Dress, Illustrated History Of The Roman Empire, June 2008, accessed 22 March 2015. http://www.roman-empire.net/society/soc-dress.html
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Roast Mutton”, The Hobbit, Ballantine, 1971, pg. 41.
 “Extreme Cold Weather Clothing”, Field Manual, United States Antarctic Deployment, 2009, accessed 3/27/15. http://www.usap.gov/travelAndDeployment/documents/FieldManual-Chapt1ExtremeColdWeatherClothing.pdf
 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), “The Making of Appendix A”; (iv) ‘Durin’s Folk”, The Peoples of Middle-earth.