Two weavers are approached by a vain, pompous Emperor who desires the finest and most luxurious clothes in all the land for himself – clothes which are befitting of his supreme status. The two weavers promise him just such a set of clothes, so fine and wonderful that they will only be for the eyes of the great and good in society; indeed, they will be quite invisible to anyone who is stupid, incompetent or unworthy of their position in society. What’s more, the clothes will be made of a material so fine (‘as light as a spider web‘) that they will not weigh down the wearer, so fine, the wearer will not even be aware of them draped over his body. Such a set of clothes would be perfect for a great Emperor. They would suit his sense of his own importance, and their magical properties of invisibility to the unworthy would enable him to find out which of his ministers were unfit for their jobs (‘and I could tell the wise men from the fools‘).
Of course, the weavers are nothing more than a pair of con-men – swindlers who have no intention of creating a fine set of clothes. They have heard of the Emperor’s vanity and they believe they can turn his failings to their own advantage. So they decide to go to the pretense of making this set of fine clothes. Of course, when the Emperor goes to visit the weavers at their work and they make a show of enthusing over the cloth and the clothes they are making, he cannot see anything at all. But he is too proud to admit that he cannot see the clothes. To do so, would be to label himself as stupid and unfit to be Emperor. And of course, when his courtiers and ministers visit the weavers, they also cannot see these clothes, but they also pretend that they can – because if they say anything different, they will be admitting their own incompetence and unworthiness. (‘Can it be that I’m a fool? It would never do to let on that I can’t see the cloth‘). What’s more, if any of them did have their suspicions about the existence of the clothes, well to voice their doubts would be to imply that the Emperor himself was stupid enough and gullible enough to be taken in by this foolery.
When the Emperor finally walks out among his subjects in his non-existent finery, the crowds watch eagerly. They all want to see which of their friends or neighbours are so stupid that they cannot see the clothes. What actually happens, of course, is that none of them see any clothes. But no one says anything. Perhaps some are embarrassed, to tell the truth, because they think that they themselves must be too stupid to see the cloth. Perhaps others believe that to say anything derogatory would be to draw attention to the truth of the Emperor’s own stupidity. Perhaps others simply do not wish to be the first to speak out with a contrary voice. Only one small child who is far too innocent of all this pretension and social convention shouts out ‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ At first, the little boy’s father tries to correct the boy, but gradually the news breaks out and so everyone finally realizes they are not alone in their inability to see the clothes. And now everybody begins to find the strength in numbers to admit there is nothing to see, and they begin to laugh.
The Emperor cringes, but continues with the procession because to turn back now would be to admit his own gullibility. Better by far to carry on in the pretense that he is the only one who has the wisdom to see the clothes. His courtiers likewise feel they have to continue to live the lie, and dutifully follow their leader.