If Clothes Make the Man, Who Makes the Clothes?

by The Writer


Exposing Vulnerability

Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor Has No Clothes”, about a narcissistic Emperor who is easily fooled by a couple of con artists who promise to make him the most luxurious suit of clothes from invisible fabric, is a short tale about pride. The con artists tell the Emperor that only those who are unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid” will not be able to see the magnificent fabric.

Fearing that he might appear stupid, the Emperor pretends to be in the know, and goes along with the con artists. Even his closest advisors and supporters do the same for fear of appearing ‘unfit’. The con artists then mime outfitting the Emperor in the invisible suit in preparation for a parade in which he will get to show off his new look. As the Emperor parades around in the buff along the royal procession, the subjects play to the mob mentality by pretending to be able to see the clothes, thereby not appearing stupid, they think. It is the innocence of a small child in the crowd that finally cuts through the charade when he calls out to the naked man marching down the street. Slowly the crowd comes out of its stupor. Ashamed, the Emperor continues to march away, holding firm to his belief, and his manhood.

Andersen’s version of the story focuses on pride and intellectual vanity, which supports the position of the ego. There are other ways to look at the cautionary tale depending on your perspective. The Emperor, wanting to appear his best before his subjects, winds up vulnerable and exposed and, as a result, is ridiculed and rejected. This perspective doesn’t support the idea of exposing one’s vulnerability; rather, it attaches a stigma of shame. However, had the Emperor admitted that he ‘didn’t get it’, and even asked for help, i.e., exposed some vulnerability his parade would have been more successful.

A leader exposing vulnerability seems counter-intuitive. According to research professor, Brené Brown, Ph.D., vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.  Brown suggests that exposing one’s vulnerability is a sign of strength, not weakness. Because the ego is designed to protect the spirit, it is incapable of appearing vulnerable. The spirit, hidden inside the ego with its vulnerability can. Interestingly, a leader who not only exposes their spirit when necessary but also connects with others is viewed as strong and courageous. These are the leaders who go on to be innovative, creative and history-making.

I am as guilty as the next person of judging our leaders by what they wear, both consciously and subconsciously. Sometimes, I’m aware of the team of people working to help ensure the leader’s image is ‘perfect’; a group of people with impressive letters after their names debate the various shades of blue, the right style of belt, and the right brand of shoe. When I’m conscious of these seemingly irrelevant things, I have to put forth a greater effort to hear the real message and have it filtered through to my moral compass. However, if I understand the necessity of it all – the importance in preserving the ever-shifting truth, strangely the messages make more sense. Often, I wonder if the teams working to perfect the leader’s image remind him to picture his audience naked in order to calm the nerves. That ubiquitous advice was offered to me as a boy when I faced speaking to a large group of people. Strangely, there is something very calming about imagining others in a vulnerable state.

The clothes we select say a lot about who we are and how we wish to be perceived. There are those who don’t like the fact that opinions are formed based on the clothes we wear and, so, they purposely don’t put much thought or effort into how they appear. But, even that action, speaks volumes about who they are inside. Many science fiction films and current real world situations have suggested the idea of a universal outfit for everyone. While this may solve many issues that arise from the human nature to judge others, the idea ignites issues of ‘individuality’. Here again is another paradox. Collectively, we can accept uniforms which convey status and authority, i.e., military, doctors, police, or clothes which symbolize togetherness, i.e., sports teams, work uniforms, cultural ceremonial attire, etc.

However, status and togetherness don’t seem like ideal reasons for all to dress alike. Despite our need to be together, we also have a need to be separate. A sporting event where teams wear matching uniforms and fans wear similar colours to show their support, serves as an example of the need to be separate from others but also a mob mentality. Interestingly, within the game, which is a form of conflict, there is barely any room for vulnerability.

Although people are most vulnerable without clothes, there is vulnerability displayed by the things we use to cover up. With teams of stylists to polish ‘the look’ of things these days, it seems wardrobe malfunctions are an easy go-to excuse. Not only can appearance damage careers, it can also launch them, which is another reason leaders must be careful. Ever since humans first realized that nakedness can be perceived as weakness, clothes have maintained an important role in society. Not only are clothes and fashion a combination of necessity, art and soul, they have become woven into the fibers of every culture.

I don’t want to be the only one unable to see the fabric, and I believe, collectively, we all have a desire to see it. Looking at the ‘Emperor’s’ story from another perspective, although the con artists may have acted with immoral intentions, they did help to break the leader’s ego, which held his subjects in a state of fear-based obligation. Incidentally, within the atheist community there are some who believe messiahs do the very same thing to their flock.

In any event, regardless of how messiahs are dressed or how leaders are presented, perhaps the real ‘saviour’ of a mob’s blind obedience is the childlike nature of innocence. And within the childlike state is where vulnerability is found.

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