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Literature / The Emperor's New Clothes

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The Emperor's New Clothes is a short story by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1837, about a vain, selfish Emperor who gets swindled by two weavers. The weavers tell him they can make the finest, most beautiful clothing, which is also engendered with magical properties meaning that the foolish or incompetent among his people would be unable to see it. The Emperor thinks that this will help him find out who in his court is unworthy of their position, and asks for them to make clothing for him.


Afraid that he might not see the clothes, he at first sends his advisors and ministers to see it. They obviously cannot see these non-existent clothes, but the swindlers describe them so intricately that they are fooled, and eventually even the Emperor himself goes to see them and wear them. Afraid to be dubbed unworthy of his job, he too agrees that he can see them. The swindlers leave with their payment of gold and fine materials, and the charade continues until the emperor parades around in his new clothes, and a naïve child points out that the emperor is naked.

The story has since entered public lexicon as the definitive example of "pluralistic ignorance" — where individuals in a group go along with something because they incorrectly assume everyone else feels the same way. In this case, no one wants to be the one to say that they can't see the exquisite clothing, so they act as if they can in order to not be painted as ignorant. If someone these days says "the emperor has no clothes", they think that someone else doesn't really believe what they're saying, they're just going along with it to fit in.


"The Emperor's New Clothes" provides examples of:

  • Abilene Paradox: "Pluralistic indifference" and collective pride is what drives everybody to keep saying there is an invisible fabric until there is no turning back. Had any of them actually spoken up, the con would have died early.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • In the "Naked King" play by Eugeny Shwartz, which borrows plot elements from several of Andersen's stories, including this one, the "con-men" are heroes on a quest to rescue the princess from being force-married to the king, who's a moronic Nazi-esque tyrant. Their main goal is to publically humiliate the king, incite a riot and abscond with the princess. Pocketing the payment for the clothes is just a nice side-bonus to set the newlyweds up for life.
    • In the converse, the BIGMAMA song "The Naked King" based on the story re-characterizes the king as a sympathetic character who would rather regret trusting than doubting, and leans on this rationale to trust the swindlers. He later publicly apologizes to his subjects, though they still regard him as a gullible fool.
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  • Adaptational Modesty: The original version had the emperor appear naked, but some tellings (namely the illustrated ones) have him in his underwear instead.
  • An Aesop: Andersen was well known for these. This was a lesson not only about honesty, being that the truth will come out sooner or later, but also about what is called "pluralistic ignorance" — in which people go along with something just because they assume other people agree.
  • Appeal to Flattery: Used by the swindlers.
  • Applicability: Human nature being what it is, the story has been invoked on many, many occasions when a large group of people is going along with a leader or a plan or an ideology that has some obvious flaws.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: The child asks, "Why is the emperor naked?"
  • Blatant Lies: Only stupid or incompetent people can't see the clothing. Turns out, they're the only ones who can.
  • Bowdlerisation: As the original version has the emperor fully naked, some versions give him underwear as a form of censorship.
  • Brutal Honesty: The kid who insists there are no clothes even when he's being shushed by others.
  • Children Are Innocent: Which is why people realize the child is right.
  • Con Man: The "weavers" who swindle the Emperor.
  • The Dandy: The Emperor is obsessed with clothes.
  • Elephant in the Living Room: All the Emperor's subjects ignore that he's walking through their city not wearing any clothes despite it being plainly obvious to everyone.
  • Embarrassed by a Child: The child's observation leads to everyone realizing that the Emperor in fact has no clothes. Pointedly, nobody is willing to notice it until the child points it out.
  • The Emperor: General Failure incarnate, as is established even before the two swindlers arrive. All he thinks about is his clothes when he ought to be taking care of his country.
  • Fairy Tale: One of the all-time classics.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: The child insisting that the Emperor has no clothes is the moment when the ruse ends — since he isn't incompetent, nor knowledgeable enough to be truly considered "stupid" by the crowd, they take his innocent Brutal Honesty as proof.
  • Fully-Clothed Nudity: A lot of adaptations (especially ones intended for children) opt to show the Emperor in Goofy Print Underwear or the like, rather than going full-frontal. (The ones that don't will usually give him a Scenery Censor.)
  • Have a Gay Old Time: One translation states that life in the city was "always gay."
  • Humiliation Conga: As comeuppance for his vanity, the Emperor finds himself parading naked as the whole kingdom realizes he was duped by a scam.
  • Karma Houdini: In almost all versions the swindlers get clear away with the money and the fine threads from the Emperor and are never seen again. Some versions even depict them as being the heroes of the story for exposing an arrogant Emperor's blind vanity and forcing him to get a clue. Subverted in the chapter of Anime Sekai No Dowa, in which a rabbit appears and makes them fall from the horse they were riding, and they almost fall to a cliff. They survive, but they lose all the gold and silk.
  • Kid Has a Point: The kid at the ending is the one who dares to point that the emperor is actually naked.
  • Naked People Are Funny: The reason the Emperor's comeuppance is so amusing.
  • Nameless Narrative: Like in many of Andersen's stories, nobody in the story is named.
  • The Reveal: "But he has nothing on!"
  • Secret Test of Character: The Emperor wants to use the clothing to weed out incompetent and stupid people. Little does he guess the very same test is being applied to him....
  • The Show Must Go On: As one translation says, "The Emperor writhed, for he knew it was true, but he thought 'The procession must continue now.'" In all translations, the procession continues.
  • Stealth Insult: Only the foolish can't see the clothes. Now, think of whom the weavers are plying their trade to.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: The child who exposes the scam. He is, after all, only a child and how can a child be unfit for their occupation?
  • Vapor Wear: The Emperor has been led to believe his clothes are just this, and that only "worthy" folk can see actual clothes.
  • Visible to Believers: Double Subverted. There really are no clothes but those who believe the swindlers' lies pretend to see them.
  • Yes-Man: Since the Emperor buys the tailors' lies about how only the stupid and incompetent won't be able to see the clothes, all his courtiers, and later the commoners, pretend they can see them out of fear of either losing their jobs or just being considered stupid. The truth is only pointed out by a child who doesn't understand the ruse, at which point the Emperor has already thrown away a tidy sum of money and resources on literally nothing, and gets publicly humiliated to boot. The moral is that you shouldn't surround yourself with enablers and yes men because critics can actually save you from embarrassing yourself.