This story, written by Hans Christian Andersen, was first published in 1836, and first translated into English in 1846. Andersen based his story on a popular folk theme – tales of similar deception are found in the folklore of many cultures – but added his own satirical edge to it.
Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.
The emperor’s love for clothes was well known. Traders, merchants and weavers from far and wide would bring fine silks, flowered brocades and softest satins to sell to the Emperor, knowing he would buy even the most expensive cloth if it caught his fancy. One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, arrived in the Emperor’s city and asked to meet him. The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks.
‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’
‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor to himself. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.
The two men set up their looms in the special room in the palace, and pretended to weave their magic cloth, though in reality they did nothing at all. They asked for the finest silk and purest gold thread, put these away into their sacks when no one was looking, and continued their pretended work at the empty looms.
After a few days, the Emperor said to himself, ‘The weavers have been at work for quite a while now. I would like to know how they are coming along.’ He remembered though, that one unfit for his office, or one who was unforgivably stupid, would not be able to see the cloth. Now, though he did not doubt that he would be able to see the cloth perfectly well, he decided he would prefer to send someone else first to view the cloth and tell him how the weavers were getting on.
‘I will send my faithful old minister,’ he said. ‘He is a wise man, and I know no one else more suited to his office than he. He will surely be able to see the cloth.’
So the faithful old minister went into the room where the weavers were working. All he could see were the empty looms. Yet the two men seemed to be working really hard at the looms. ‘What can be the meaning of this?’ wondered the Minister.
The two men, seeing the Minister, greeted him courteously, and pretended to show him the cloth they were supposedly weaving. They pointed to the empty frames and asked anxiously whether the design pleased him, whether the Emperor would approve of the colours, and so on. The Minister looked and looked, but he could not see the cloth – for the very good reason that there was no cloth to see!
‘What can be the meaning of this?’ he wondered again. ‘I cannot see the cloth these men are weaving! Am I then a fool? No – of course not! I have never thought so, and no one else must think so! Am I then not fit to be minister? No, that is not true either! I will never confess that I could not see the cloth!’
The two crooks, enjoying themselves thoroughly, begged the confused old minister to be sure and tell the Emperor how much he liked the cloth and how hard they were working to make him the most wonderful suit of clothes ever.
‘Oh yes, of course I will tell the Emperor, do not worry,’ said the Minister, trying hard to remember all that the crooks had said about the colours and the patterns they had used.
Soon after, much impressed by his minister’s report and ever more eager for his magic clothes, the Emperor sent another high official to check on and report on the weavers’ work. This man too, could not see the cloth, but having heard the Minister’s report, and seeing the weavers working so hard, and listening to their descriptions of colours and patterns, he was convinced that there really was a magic cloth on the empty frames that he could not see. ‘Does that mean I am a fool, or that I am unfit for my office?’ he wondered in panic. ‘That must never be thought! I will never confess that I cannot see the cloth!’ So he too praised the cloth, and the weavers.
The whole city was talking of the wonderful cloth that was being woven for their Emperor. The Emperor himself was beside himself with excitement. ‘I must see the cloth for myself,’ he declared.
When the two crooks heard that the Emperor himself was coming to inspect their work, they pretended to work harder than ever, keeping the candles burning through the night. The looms remained as empty as ever.
The Emperor entered the room where the weavers were working, and stared in surprise at the empty looms. ‘What is this?’ he thought. ‘I cannot see any cloth on the looms! Yet two officials of my court did see it! Does this mean I am not fit to be Emperor, or that I am unforgivably stupid? Oh dear – I cannot let that happen!’ So the Emperor smiled graciously at the weavers and said aloud, ‘The cloth is wonderful!’
The weavers bowed gratefully, and praised the beauty of the non-existent cloth, pretending to point out a colour here, a pattern there. The Emperor nodded and smiled. The minister and the court official, determined they would not appear unfit for office or stupid, added their praises to those of the weavers. The men and women in his retinue strained their eyes to see the cloth – and could see no more than the others. But, like the emperor and his ministers, not wishing to be thought unfit for office, nor unforgivably stupid, they all exclaimed, ‘Oh, how wonderful, how beautiful!’ and advised the Emperor to have some new clothes made and wear them in procession through the city.
The Emperor thought that a marvelous idea. He ordered the weavers to tailor the clothes for him as quickly as possible, and gave them a knighthood and his kingdom’s Ribbon of Honour. The weavers bowed and scraped in gratitude. They pretended to work really hard, and sat up all night cutting and stitching the imaginary suit of clothes. At last they declared the clothes ready.
The Emperor, with all his high officials, came to the weavers. The two men held up their arms, as though holding something, and cried ‘Here is Your Majesty’s tunic! Here is Your Majesty’s cloak! Here are the trousers! Here is the scarf! The whole suit is as light as air – wearing it you might think you are wearing nothing! That is the wonderful quality of this magical cloth!’
The Emperor and his courtiers nodded and smiled and exclaimed in admiration, though none of them could see anything of this magical suit of clothes.
The weavers asked the Emperor to undress, so they could help him on with his new suit of clothes. The Emperor did so, and the weavers pretended to dress him in the new clothes. The Emperor turned from side to side in front of the mirror, admiringly.
‘How wonderful His Majesty look sin his new clothes!’ cried the courtiers.
Finally the weavers declared the Emperor ready. The lords of the bedchamber felt about on the ground, as though picking up the end of his mantle, and pretended to be carrying it. The rest gazed admiringly at the Emperor.
So now the Emperor, followed by his courtiers and high officials, walked through the streets of his city, so that the people may admire his new suit of clothes. All the people standing by, and those leaning out from the windows cried, ‘Oh how magnificent our Emperor looks in his new clothes!’ No one was willing to admit he could not see these much admired clothes, for no one wanted to be thought unfit for his office or a fool.
A little child was watching the procession too. He wondered what the grown ups were admiring. ‘But the Emperor has nothing at all on!’ he cried. At that the people looked at each other, and soon a great shout went up, ‘But the Emperor has nothing at all on!’
The Emperor was annoyed, because he knew the people were right. Yet what could he do? Royal dignity must be maintained. The procession must go on. So he held his head higher and walked even more regally through the streets, while the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever to pretend they were holding a train, even though there was no train to hold!