Illustration from Andersen, Hans Christian. The Snow Queen and Other Stories from Hans Andersen. Edmund Dulac, illustrator. London: Hodder & Stoughton 1911.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” from Andersen’s Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Finally a fairy tale with no evil step-mothers, no wicked witches, no damsels in distress waiting for a knight to save them. The Emperor is obsessed with his wardrobe and hires two weavers who promise to make a beautiful cloth that will be invisible to anyone who was not fit for their job or who was “extraordinarily simple in character.” I’m sure you know what happens next. The weavers are frauds and just pantomiming work at their looms, but anyone who comes to view the cloth pretends that they can in fact see it, that it is beautiful. Once the “suit” is finished, the weavers help the Emperor put it on and he wears it for a procession through town. All the villagers admire the beautiful fabric until a child calls out that the Emperor has “nothing at all on.” Others take up the cry.

The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.

Wait a minute. There’s not a female character at all, in a story all about clothes. It just doesn’t seem right, so I had to read “The Empress’s New Clothes” by Barbara G. Walker in her book, Feminist Fairy Tales. All the characters are female, the empress, the dressmakers, even the child who shouts the truth, “Mommy, the empress is naked.”

In this re-telling, the fabric supposedly can’t be seen or felt by anyone “whose consciences bore any burden of guilt or immorality.” Like the original, everyone pretends they can see the beautiful silk , but as the older dressmaker says,

“Guilt is universal. There’s not a person in the whole empire who doesn’t have a secret shame.”

Even the empress, when she can’t see it, reflects on her past immoralities and ruthlessness. The child who announces that the Empress is wearing nothing is believed because she is too young to have anything to feel guilty about.

The morals are the same, that you can’t believe everything you’re told, that even the rich and powerful can sometimes be blinded by their own conceit, that we need to tell each other the truth even when it’s difficult. However,when the Empress realizes she’s been made a fool she doesn’t just keep going, she borrows a guard’s coat to cover herself, making her more admirable in my eyes than the Emperor. Her pride doesn’t overwhelm her common sense. Also, she recognizes the dressmakers’ cleverness and rewards them instead of putting them to death. She’s shown as intelligent and beneficent. The dressmakers’ perceptiveness is highlighted. Strong, smart women, all of them.

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there for her take on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and to share your own thoughts. Next week, the focus will be on “The Princess and the Pea.”

My copy of Feminist Fairy Tales was borrowed from the library and I read the original story at Project Gutenberg. The above is my honest opinion. I am an Amazon associate.