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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 because of his pride.

Two conmen approach the Emperor and tell him that they are expert weavers who can make the finest, most beautiful cloth, which is also enchanted so that only the diligent and competent can see it. The Emperor, thinking that this will be a fine way to weed out the unfit among his court, hires them to make a suit of clothing for him.

The 'weavers' set up shop and go to work, making many demands for fine materials and expensive thread but not actually weaving anything. After some time, the Emperor sends his advisors and ministers to observe and give him a report. They cannot see anything on the loom, but they are afraid to admit it, so they return with glowing reports on how beautiful the cloth is. Eventually the Emperor goes to be dressed in his new finery — which he of course can neither see nor feel — and he too agrees that they are the finest clothes he ever owned. The swindlers leave with their payment, and the emperor parades through the city in his new 'suit.' The townspeople are too afraid to point out the obvious, until finally a young child cries out that the emperor has nothing on.

The story has since entered public lexicon as the definitive example of Pluralistic Ignorance — agreeing with the group consensus despite personal belief to the contrary because 'everyone else' believes it... even if they don't. In this case, no dares to say that they can't see the Emperor's new clothes, so they act as if they can. The aphorism "the emperor has no clothes" means that someone is clearly lying and hoping to get away with it by discouraging anyone from disagreeing with them.

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

  • Abilene Paradox: "Pluralistic indifference" and collective pride is what drives everybody to keep saying they can see the fantastical 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.
    • Likewise, in the song "I Can See" by MC Frontalot, the king is portrayed as a greedy, oppressive tyrant. The song ends with him being overthrown in a revolution, which is implied to have been the tailor's plan all along.
    • 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.
    • In Rankin/Bass Productions' adaption, The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye, the Villainous Harlequin Jasper makes the emperor into the vain man he is in the story so he can take over the kingdom for himself. The con-men reveal his evil scheme with their "clothes that are invisible to anyone stupid" scam.
  • 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 a falsehood just because they assume it's true for everyone else.
  • 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 obvious flaws.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: The child asks, "Why is the emperor naked?"
  • Batman Gambit: The weavers' con relied on both people in general and the Emperor in particular being too embarrassed to admit they couldn't see the "cloth" for fear of being exposed as stupid or incompetent. It would have fallen apart immediately if anyone had had the guts to speak up.
  • 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 have him parading in his underwear as a form of censorship.
  • Brutal Honesty: A child is the one to point out the Emperor's obvious problem.
  • 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: None of the Emperor's subjects dare point out that he's walking through their city naked, 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.) Not that the leader of a country parading in his underwear is much less humiliating than going in the altogether.
  • 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: A child is the one who dares to say that the emperor is naked. When he hears this, even the Emperor realizes that it is true, but he has no choice but to keep parading.
  • 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.
  • Pride: Since the conmen bill their wares as invisible to the incompetent, everyone pretends they can see them for fear of being exposed.
  • 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.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: The two imposters pretending to be weavers claim to have a magic cloth that is invisible to anyone who is stupid and unfit to hold office. In reality, it's all imaginary.
  • 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: Subverted. There are, in fact, no clothes, but everyone claims to see them due to buying the swindlers' lies and out of fear of being deemed stupid.
  • 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.