In the great city in which he lived it was always very merry; every day came many strangers; word of the Emperor's refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond. Two scoundrels who had heard of the Emperor's vanity decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves at the gates of the palace with a scheme in mind, and declared they could weave the finest cloth any one could imagine. Not only were their colors and patterns, they said, uncommonly beautiful, but the clothes made of the fabric possessed the wonderful quality that they became invisible to any one who was unfit for the office he held, or was incorrigibly stupid.
"We are two very good tailors and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality."
The chief of the guards heard the scoundrel's strange story and sent for the court chamberlain. The chamberlain notified the prime minister, who ran to the Emperor and disclosed the incredible news. The Emperor's curiosity got the better of him and he decided to see the two scoundrels.
“Those would be capital clothes!” thought the Emperor. “If I wore those, I should be able to find out what men in my empire are not fit for the places they have; I could tell the clever from the dunces. Yes, the stuff must be woven for me directly!”
"Besides being invisible, your Highness, this cloth will be woven in colors and patterns created especially for you." The emperor gave the two men a bag of gold coins in exchange for their promise to begin working on the fabric immediately.
"Just tell us what you need to get started and we'll give it to you." The two scoundrels asked for a loom, silk, gold thread and then pretended to begin working. The Emperor thought he had spent his money quite well: in addition to getting a new extraordinary suit, he would discover which of his subjects were ignorant and incompetent.
As for them, they put up two looms, and pretended to be working; but they had nothing at all on their looms. They at once demanded the finest silk and the costliest gold; this they put into their own pockets, and worked at the empty looms till late into the night.
“I should like to know how far they have got on with the cloth,” thought the Emperor. But he felt quite uncomfortable when he thought that those who were not fit for their offices could not see it. He believed, indeed, that he had nothing to fear for himself, but yet he preferred first to send some one else to see how matters stood. All the people in the city knew what peculiar power the stuff possessed, and all were anxious to see how bad or how stupid their neighbors were.
“I will send my honest old Minister to the weavers,” thought the Emperor. “He can judge best how the stuff looks, for he has sense, and no one understands his office better than he.”
A few days later, the Emperor called the old and wise prime minister, who was considered by everyone as a man with common sense.
"Go and see how the work is proceeding," he told him, "and come back to let me know."
Now the good old Minister went out into the hall where the two scoundrels sat working at the empty looms and was welcomed by them.
“Mercy on us!” thought the old Minister, and he opened his eyes wide. “I cannot see anything at all!” But he did not say this.
Both the scoundrels begged him to be so good as to come nearer, and asked if he did not approve of the colors and the pattern. Then they pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old Minister went on opening his eyes; but he could see nothing, for there was nothing to see.
“Mercy!” thought he, “can I indeed be so stupid? I never thought that, and not a soul must know it. Am I not fit for my office? No, it will never do for me to tell that I could not see the fabric.”
"We're almost finished, but we need a lot more gold thread. Here, Excellency! Admire the colors, feel the softness!" The old man bent over the loom and tried to see the fabric that was not there. He felt cold sweat on his forehead.
"I can't see anything," he thought. "If I see nothing, that means I'm stupid! Or, worse, incompetent!" If the prime minister admitted that he didn't see anything, he would be discharged from his office.
“Don’t you have anything to say of it?” asked one, as he went on weaving.
“Oh, it is charming—quite enchanting!” answered the old Minister, as he peered through his spectacles. “What a fine pattern, and what colors! Yes, I shall tell the Emperor that I am very much pleased with it.”
“Well, we are glad of that,” said both the weavers; and then they named the colors, and explained the strange pattern. The old Minister listened attentively, that he might be able to repeat it when the Emperor came. And he did so. The two scoundrels rubbed their hands gleefully. They had almost made it. More thread was requested to finish the work.
So the scoundrels asked for more money, and silk and gold, which they declared they wanted for weaving. They put all into their own pockets, and not a thread was put upon the loom; they continued to work at the empty frames as before.
The Emperor soon sent again, dispatching another honest officer of the court, to see how the weaving was going on, and if the stuff would soon be ready. He fared just like the first: he looked and looked, but, as there was nothing to be seen but the empty looms, he could see nothing.
“Is not that a pretty piece of fabric?” asked the two scoundrels; and they displayed and explained the handsome pattern which was not there at all.
“I am not stupid!” thought the man: “it must be my good office, for which I am not fit. It is funny enough, but I must not let it be noticed.” And so he praised the cloth which he did not see, and expressed his pleasure at the beautiful colors and charming pattern. “Yes, it is enchanting,” he told the Emperor.
All the people in the town were talking of the gorgeous stuff. The Emperor wished to see it himself while it was still upon the loom. With a whole crowd of chosen men, among whom were also the two honest statesmen who had already been there, he went to the two cunning tailors, who were now weaving with might and main without fibre or thread.
“Is not that splendid?” said the two statesmen, who had already been there once. “Does not your Majesty remark the pattern and the colors?” And they pointed to the empty loom, for they thought that the others could see the stuff.
“What’s this?” thought the Emperor. “I can see nothing at all! That is terrible. Am I stupid? Am I not fit to be Emperor? That would be the most dreadful thing that could happen to me. Oh, it is very pretty!” he said aloud. “It has our highest approbation.” And he nodded in a contented way, and gazed at the empty loom, for he would not say that he saw nothing. The whole suite whom he had with him looked and looked, and saw nothing, any more than the rest; but, like the Emperor, they said, “That is pretty!” and counseled him to wear the splendid new clothes for the first time at the great procession that was presently to take place. “It is splendid, excellent!” went from mouth to mouth. On all sides there seemed to be general rejoicing, and the Emperor gave the scoundrels the title of Imperial Court Weavers.
Finally, the Emperor received the announcement that the two tailors had come to take all the measurements needed to sew his new suit.
"Come in," the Emperor ordered. Even as they bowed, the two scoundrels pretended to be holding large roll of fabric.
"Here it is your Highness, the result of our labour," the scoundrels said. "We have worked night and day but, at last, the most beautiful fabric in the world is ready for you. Look at the colors and feel how fine it is." Of course the Emperor did not see any colors and could not feel any cloth between his fingers. He panicked and felt like fainting. But luckily the throne was right behind him and he sat down. But when he realized that no one could know that he did not see the fabric, he felt better. Nobody could find out he was stupid and incompetent. And the Emperor didn't know that everybody else around him thought and did the very same thing.
The farce continued as the two scoundrels had foreseen it. Once they had taken the measurements, the two began cutting the air with scissors while sewing with their needles an invisible cloth.
The whole night before the morning on which a procession was to take place, the scoundrels were up, and kept more than sixteen candles burning. The people could see that they were hard at work, completing the Emperor’s new clothes. They pretended to take the cloth down from the loom; they made cuts in the air with great scissors; they sewed with needles without thread; and at last they said, “Now the clothes are ready!”
The Emperor came himself with his noblest cavaliers; and the two scoundrels lifted up one arm as if they were holding something, and said, “See, here are the trousers! here is the coat! here is the cloak!” and so on. “It is as light as a spider’s web: one would think one had nothing on; but that is just the beauty of it.”
“Yes,” said all the cavaliers; but they could not see anything, for nothing was there.
“Will your Imperial Majesty please to condescend to take off your clothes?” said the scoundrels; “then we will put on you the new clothes here in front of the great mirror.” The two scoundrels pretended to put on him each new garment as it was ready; and the Emperor turned round and round before the mirror. The Emperor was embarrassed but since none of his bystanders were, he felt relieved.
“Oh, how well they look! how capitally they fit!” said all. “What a pattern! what colors! That is a splendid dress!” "Yes, this is a beautiful suit and it looks very good on me," the Emperor said trying to look comfortable. "You've done a fine job."
"Your Majesty," the prime minister said, "we have a request for you. The people have found out about this extraordinary fabric and they are anxious to see you in your new suit." The Emperor was doubtful showing himself naked to the people, but then he abandoned his fears. After all, no one would know about it except the ignorant and the incompetent. “They are standing outside with the canopy, which is to be borne above your Majesty in the procession!” announced the head Master of the Ceremonies.
“Well, I am ready,” replied the Emperor. “Does it not suit me well?” And then he turned again to the mirror, for he wanted it to appear as if he contemplated his adornment with great interest.
"All right," he said. "I will grant the people this privilege." He summoned his carriage and the ceremonial parade was formed. A group of dignitaries walked at the very front of the procession and anxiously scrutinized the faces of the people in the street. All the people had gathered in the main square, pushing and shoving to get a better look. An applause welcomed the regal procession. Everyone wanted to know how stupid or incompetent his or her neighbor was but, as the Emperor passed, a strange murmur rose from the crowd.
The two chamberlains, who were to carry the train, stooped down with their hands toward the floor, just as if they were picking up the mantle; then they pretended to be holding something in the air. They did not dare to let it be noticed that they saw nothing.
So the Emperor went in procession under the rich canopy, and every one in the streets said, “How incomparable are the Emperor’s new clothes! what a train he has to his mantle! how it fits him!” No one would let it be perceived that he could see nothing, for that would have shown that he was not fit for his office, or was very stupid. No clothes of the Emperor’s had ever had such a success as these.
Everyone said, loud enough for the others to hear: "Look at the Emperor's new clothes. They're beautiful!"
"What a marvellous train!"
"And the colors! The colors of that beautiful fabric! I have never seen anything like it in my life!" They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the clothes, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.
A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.
"The Emperor is naked," he said.
"Fool!" his father reprimanded, running after him. "Don't talk nonsense!" He grabbed his child and took him away. But the boy's remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:
"The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It's true!"
The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn't see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle.