I love Hans Christian Andersen. He’s a storyteller I’ve had my eye on since, oh, about 1989, if you know what I’m saying.
My mum had an audio…play…thing on cassette that was an updated, tongue-in-cheek adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and I still quote parts of it, even now. It’s been one of my favourites since.
The story goes that two swindlers find themselves in a empire with a vain emperor who is trying hard to keep favour with the courtiers. They come up with an idea to trick him with a fabric so fine that most people couldn’t even see it. Not wanting to appear unrefined, the emperor declared that he could see it and commissioned the two to make him a suit with this special fabric.
The tricksters make a great show of cutting, folding, and sewing this invisible fabric and even pretend to put it on him before he puts on this big procession among his people. The court, either through peer pressure or by convincing themselves they can actually see it, praise his taste and wealth.
The people of the town, used to being out of the loop, make a great show of the emperor’s new suit. But a little boy in the crowd sees the emperor and cries, ‘the emperor has no clothes on!’
The History of the Story
So, there are a few versions of how this story came about. There was an old medieval Spanish story where the the fabric would only appear to a man whose father was who he believed him to be. Then there’s an older Indian one that only shows itself to people of legitimate birth.
It seems that Andersen was aware of the Spanish version, though he read it in a German translation, and chose to change it because he was a good egg and preferred to call out vanity and courtly sycophants than innocent bastards and their poor mothers. I gotta say, I agree.
There’s also a story where Andersen’s mother took him to Copenhagen once to see a royal procession. When the king passed, apparently little Hans cried out, ‘why, the king is only a man!’ His horrified mother tried to shush him, but the indignation never left him.
What a little shit, I love it.
My version differs a bit, as they often do. In Underdressed, Alois and Johanne get invited to Court for the season. As in real life, the king is partial to comically outdated fashions, and Alois makes an offhand joke of that nature unfortunately within earshot of the affronted king. Because his joke was retelling a comment Johanne had made, the king’s ire falls on her. He challenges her to design a new, updated fashion for his court.
Aware of the king’s notorious temper, her own lack of creativity, and uhh, some other salacious details I won’t spoil for you, Johanne agonises over what to do. Eventually, she turns her eye to the ancient world with its enlightenment and class, and strips away all of the structure, formality, and opulence of courtly fashion- to the great scandal and eventual approval of all. Again, with details I won’t spoil 😉
I did this for a few reasons. 1, if you look at fashion history between say, 1770 and 1790, there’s a lot of surface changes like frizzed hair, hair styles, and bodice styles, but the thread is clear. About 1800, everything changes. Look at Marie Antoinette and Jane Austen- notice anything?
That’s a lot of change in 10-ish years. Think to how much fashion changed between 2000 and now. Can you even tell?
What happened in real life was what’s call neo-Classicalism, which means people rediscovered the Classical world and got Obsessed. The ancients were believed to live a simpler, more intellectual and refined life, so in a time of turmoil in Europe, people wanted to emulate that period. Only in women’s styles, of course, lol. But that’s fashion for you.
And also Beau Brummell. *shakes fist*
Anyway, there was a big to-do back then about women suddenly wearing these sheath dresses, soft corsets, no panniers, smaller wigs or their natural hair, etc etc. It looked like they were going about in their underthings! (And that’s true- if you look at 1700’s chemises, they look just like Regency gowns. Honestly, in an age where you flirt by how you hold your fan, imagine the scandal of a room full of women in their underwear. To be a fly on the wall!)
So, there you have it. Johanne may not be much good at coming up with something new, but by dressing the queen in a fancy nightgown, she ushered in a new age of intellectual honesty, freedom of thought and movement.