Paper-Thin Disguise

"Mr. Burns, it was naive of you to think I'd mistake this town's most prominent 104-year-old man for one of my elementary school students."
Principal Skinner, The Simpsons

A character that the other characters should recognize (or at least recognize as out of place) dons a disguise and is treated as neither recognizable nor conspicuous. This disguise is so completely transparent that the audience wants to shout "For the love of God, it's him!"

The external reason for the flimsy disguise may be that the creators want to signal the presence of a disguise to the audience before the other characters catch on (a sort of Reverse Whodunnit). Sometimes, the character may also be a Special Guest the director wants to get their money out of. All the same, you often get The Reveal staged in such a way to make it clear that the director really thought you wouldn't have worked it out by now. For the more perceptive viewers, it's a case of The Untwist.

While this is not quite a Discredited Trope, these days Paper Thin Disguises are parodied as often as they are used seriously. The trope is still an important dramatic convention in live theater and opera productions — where a really good disguise would render the character unidentifiable from the cheap seats, and be beyond the scope of the prop budget to boot — but is usually employed along with some kind of nod to audience acknowledging the absurdity. This can sometimes be exaggerated for comedic effect, for example wearing bunny ears and becoming indistinguishable from a real rabbit, or pretending to be an ancient statue by simply standing still in a specific pose. Children's shows still employ this trope regularly without any parody element.

This trope differs from the general case of Wig, Dress, Accent in that a Wig, Dress, Accent disguise is always plausible. Paper Thin Disguise also includes the element of being staged as if the disguise really is convincing, which is not generally present in Wig, Dress, Accent.

Some consider a pair of glasses or Sun-glasses Paper Thin Disguise, but a research showed that it is rather useful to mess with people who don't really know you well.(Research is done by showing pictures of people with and without glasses and asking others to recognize them, and people did a pretty bad score in glasses while worse with sun-glasses)

Compare with Clark Kenting and Newspaper-Thin Disguise. Contrast with Full-Body Disguise and Latex Perfection. Also see Charlie Brown from Outta Town, Conspicuous Trenchcoat, Holding Both Sides of the Conversation, Hugh Mann, Most Definitely Not a Villain, Mr. Smith, and Not a Zombie.

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    Fan Fic 
  • Whenever the All Guardsmen Party tries to use disguises.
    • Mostly because when they wear civilian clothes they just look like guardsmen wearing civilian clothes.
    • It doesn't help that they hide their lasguns under their disguises. This produces a rather obvious rifle-shaped bulge, which gets them in trouble with security when they try to get into a bank.
    • On top of that, they have to contend with Nubby trying to steal pretty much everything in sight.
    • They even pass this on to their students when asked to train up new Interrogators.
    "We watched, tears in our eyes, as they practically marched onto the scene, looking exactly like a bunch of guardsmen trying unsuccessfully to look like civvies."
  • In the one-shot Hiding in Plain Sight Harry Potter gets Lasik eye surgery and becomes completely unrecognizable to the pureblood wizards at Hogwarts without his trademark glasses. Then the Aurors try to recreate 21 Jump Street at Hogwarts. The muggleborns have absolutely no trouble recognizing the incredibly out-of-place "first-year students".
  • A large degree of Kirby fanfiction gives Kirby the ability to become completely indistinguishable from whoever he's taken the power/costume of, despite the obvious size differences.
  • Kyon manages to call Tsuruya and make her think he was his uncle Kintaro in Kyon Big Damn Hero, even though he sounded identical to normal. He was sleeping in the same room as her at that point, though.
  • The incredibly useless Invisibility Cloak in My Immortal: people can see the cloak when it is in use, so basically the users are walking around with a regular cloak over their heads.
  • According to Light and Dark The Adventures of Dark Yagami, a naked woman can pass for a man merely by having a tattoo that reads "IM A DUDE".
  • In the Calvin At Camp episode "The New Kid," Larry Koopa infiltrates the camp while wearing nothing but a Mickey Mouse hat.
  • In Nobody Dies, in order to pacify a rampaging A.I. based on Fallout 3, Gendo tricks it into thinking he's Abraham Lincoln simply by wearing a top hat. It probably helped that he already had the beard.
  • Hivefled: in one of the less grimdark scenes, the four trolls with the smallest and thus most easily-concealed horns dress up as humans to go food shopping. Not only are they wearing hats and gloves in June and concealing their grey skin only with face-paint, but John only just manages to stop them talking about eating babies in public.
  • Mega Man: Defender of the Human Race has Wily's "Mr. X" outfit; possibly even worse is ProtoMan's alias, "Pro T. Mann."
  • The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic/Digimon Adventure 02 crossover Digital Harmony has the Digidestined trying to pass the Mane Five off on Earth by saying that they're Digimon. Of course, in the wake of MaloMyotismon's defeat in the 02 finale, the human world is becoming more and more aware of Digimon, so their families tend to buy it.
  • Zigzagged throughout Like One Sundered Star, where superhero identities are Paper Thin Disguises when they have any efficacy at all. Karkat and John are the only ones who DON'T immediately ID each other as Heir and Hemogoblin out of costume. Dave and Bro barely even give lip service to the trope, removing their shades while "on duty" but making no other effort to conceal their faces. Kanaya has to drastically redesign Rose's Seer of Light costume into a real disguise after her Superpowered Evil Side rampages through New York unmasked.
  • In Welcome To The Family Light Yagami determines that not even the genii of Wammy's House can withstand the mighty stealth powers of the "magic hoodie" that somehow renders him unrecognizable whenever he goes out to do nefarious things.
  • Justified in Fist Of The Moon. Usually the senshi have disguise fields protecting their identities that are so powerful you cannot remember their faces while staring straight at them. but people with high levels of Silver Energy are somewhat immune, so Ranma and Akane see through them without even realizing it's supposed to be a disguise.
  • Tealove's Steamy Adventure exaggerates it for laughs. Big Tiny Little tries to impersonate Colt Skylark in order to gain Tealove and Snowcatcher's confidence. He looks and acts nothing like Skylark, he doesn't wear any disguise, and he doesn't get that Skylark was never a friend of Tealove or Snowcatcher in the first place. He doesn't fool anyone—the others just get tired of arguing with him.
    Snowcatcher trailed off as a short, fat unicorn waddled up to the group. “Who are you?”
    “Who, me?” he said. “Don’tcha remembers me? [...] Don’tcha remembers yer old pal, Colt Skylark?”
    Snowcatcher groaned and placed a hoof to her forehead. “First of all, you look and sound nothing like Mr. Skylark. Second, he’s not an ‘old friend’—he’s a random pony with a suspicious backstory who we’ve known for less than an hour.”
    “So you don’t remembers yer old friend. Snowcatcher, that hurts me, right here it does.” He placed a hoof over his heart.
  • In Vapors there is an international, kunoichi-only summit to discuss dealing with the Akatsuki. The Dragon Konan doesn't even bother with a disguise, she walks in with her real face and name as the representative from Rain, because no one except Aiko knows who the leaders of Akatsuki are, and she can't tell.
  • In I Against I, Me Against You Church and the Blues try to pass Twilight Sparkle off as a dog when passing through a military checkpoint. Surprisingly, it works, but the UNSC doesn't let front line personnel keep pets and confiscates Twilight. Wyoming, however, is not fooled.

  • "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" is a hit song for the Louisiana-based John Fred and His Playboy Band in early 1968. The song was a parody of The Beatles' hit, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds".
  • The Lonely Island song "Two Worlds Collide" features SNL cast member Kenan Thompson fooling Andy Samberg into thinking he is Reba McEntire with just a red wig.
  • The members of Pink Floyd would sometimes mingle with the audience for drinks during the intermissions for their shows, with no disguise other than leaving their instruments behind. They were almost never identified as the people who had previously been performing under a spotlight right in front of them. Of course, all four of them were pretty unremarkable-looking and they tended to stay out of the public eye, but still...

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Happens a few times in The Far Side. The most notable example is a polar bear with a penguin mask that doesn't even cover his whole face. And yet the penguins wonder why their numbers are diminishing.
  • Calvin and Hobbes:
    • Subverted when Calvin assumes (probably from seeing too many TV shows where this trope is in effect) that he'll be unrecognizable in his "Stupendous Man" costume, and is thoroughly confused and frustrated when it fools nobody. Especially funny is that his mom, one of the people he expects will be fooled, made the costume for him in the first place.
    • Calvin attempts to do this trope with Hobbes (wearing a trenchcoat with Hobbes on top) in order to sneak into an X-rated movie. Going by the ticket seller's remark in the final panel ("This is a new one."), she evidently did not fall for it.
    • Calvin once donned a fake nose, glasses and mustache and when Mom came to ask him about a broken lamp, he altered his voice and asked, "Who ees thees Kahlveen?"
  • Prickly City: How to disguise a coyote as the Lost Bunny of the Apocalypse: bunny ears.
  • Spoofed in Brewster Rockit Space Guy, where the dumber than bricks main character Brewster mistakes an alien that looks like Mr. Potato Head wearing just a wig for Lieutenant Pamela.
  • Subverted in Dilbert; Alice is clearly not fooled by the PHB's disguise here, nor is his secretary fooled in the following strip.
  • In this Garfield strip, Liz may not be fooled, but as the next day's strip showed, Jon sure is.
  • In one series of Peanuts strips, Peppermint Patty enlisted Snoopy's help to find out who took her teacher's box of golden stars. Snoopy disguised himself as Patty and took her place in class; however, it was little more than a wig resembling Patty's hair. Still, it fooled her teacher and Marcie, although Marcie was a little suspicious. ("What kind of illness makes your nose grow but the rest of you shrink?" she mused.) Meanwhile, Patty's disguise while she looked for the box of stars was just as absurd; she put on a fake mustache and work clothes and posed as a janitor named "Hans Hanson". She didn't fool Marcie, but she did fool the teacher. (And she did manage to find the box of stars, which had fallen into a wastebasket. Ironically, Snoopy did so well in class, he got one on his test.)

  • Dice Funk: Rinaldo concocts an entire alter ego, only for it to immediately fall apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny.
    Leon: I'm Filet Mignon from Pottsylvania!

    Professional Wrestling 
  • It's a standard part of any Charlie Brown from Outta Town storyline.
  • André the Giant: In the spring of 1986 (following his WrestleMania 2 battle royal victory), Andre requested time off to go on a tour of Japan, heal from legitimate injuries, and begin filming scenes from a movie he was hired to star in, The Princess Bride. At the time, he was engaged in a 3-year-old feud with Big John Studd over whom was the true giant of wrestling, and a storyline was contrived to have Andre "miss" several high-profile tag-team matches (with a partner of his choice) against Studd and King Kong Bundy. Eventually, at Bobby Heenan's behest, WWF president Jack Tunney "suspended" Andre. Later in the summer of 1986, a masked wrestler, identifying himself as the "Giant Machine" appeared, targeting – along with other masked "Machine" wrestlers – Studd and Bundy. The villains insisted that the Giant Machine was in fact Andre. They were right, except they were unable to mask Andre to prove his true identity (much to the delight of fans), and the WWF's lead announcers, usually Vince McMahon, Gorilla Monsoon, or Bruno Sammartino, speculated that the "Giant Machine" might be one of several famous Japanese wrestlers.
    • Indeed, Bundy and Studd never were able to prove their case to the fans, which – had they succeeded – Andre would have been "fired" (for circumventing Tunney's suspension). However, the storyline was always left open so that if Andre's health forced his retirement, the "Giant Machine" would have been unmasked. However, Andre's health held up enough and – after finishing filming of The Princess Bride and concluding his Japanese tour – he was "reinstated" ... and a heel turn later that led to his famous WrestleMania III match with Hulk Hogan etched his name in history.
    • At the height of the Bundy/Studd-Machines feud, Heenan introduced his own stable of "masked" wrestlers during a segment of "The Flower Shop." It was obviously Studd and Bundy wearing paper masks, and they quickly revealed themselves to scornfully mock Andre.
  • John Cena was storyline fired from WWE following Survivor Series 2010, but didn't actually leave the company (since he's kind of the biggest money-making machine WWE has at the moment). In his place at house shows, WWE trotted out Juan Cena, until he was "re-hired".
  • Hulk Hogan's Mr. America disguise came about after he was "fired" in 2003. When he left the company, footage appeared revealing that Hogan took off his mask after a match.
  • In TNA, what disguise did Sting wear when he attacked Rob Van Dam from the crowd? A Sting mask.
  • Delirious tried to do CM Punk's steal an audience member's clothing and hide in the crowd trick but his mask and the tassels hanging off of it stuck out like a sore thumb. Daizee Haze has also worn some disguises in her efforts to aid Delirious...with mixed results.

  • Pip Bin of Bleak Expectations is always fooled by his nemesis Mr Gently Benevolent's disguises, though they're always comically thin and he's prone to slipping back into his accent, saying his evil internal monologue out loud.
    Pip: Mr Benevolent! How did you fool me for so long?
    Mr Benevolent: Do you know, I genuinely have no idea.
    • Taken to extremes in one episode where Pip Bin's sister (at that point Mr. Benevolent's 'saucy evil consort') blows the disguise in seconds. Twice. He still doesn't catch on.
    • And then there's Miss Talula Really-Obvious-Fake I-Can't-Believe-You-Haven't-Noticed Not-A-Man. "She" is still Mister Benevolent, and he manages to fool Pip Bin long enough to get married. Even after Benevolent drops the act, Pip still believes Talula was real.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • The late Linda Smith had a routine complaining about the use of this trope in opera: "Someone puts on a big hat and suddenly no-one can recognize them, even people who they've been talking to for half an hour. If that worked in real life, the witness protection program would consist of a selection of headgear."

It's not unusual for disguises to seem paper-thin on stage, a dramatic convention to make allowance for limited props and budget. Willing Suspension of Disbelief is encouraged in this scenario.

  • In Ken Ludwig's Lend Me A Tenor, the theater manager's assistant Max disguises himself as the visiting tenor Tito Merelli after Tito is found dead in his hotel room. This works on the opera's audience, as they have never seen the real Tito and won't know the difference. However, Tito's Not Quite Dead, and is running around Cleveland in the same costume Max is wearing (Tito brought two identical costumes). Saunders, the manager, runs into Tito several times without realizing the costumed tenor is not Max, despite Max and Tito, even in costume, looking nothing alike.
  • In many stagings of As You Like It, Rosalind's "Ganymede" disguise is portrayed as this. In these versions, Orlando recognizes her at once, she realizes as much, and their subsequent "tutoring" scenes together become coy, humorous flirtations between the pair, who through role-playing can be frank with each other in ways a young couple of the time ordinarily couldn't.
  • In Holy Musical B@man!, Alfred is fired by Bruce, later returning as "O'Malley the Irish Butler" who is just Alfred wearing a hat and a ginger beard.

    Theme Parks 
  • In Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast, when Ooblar is breaking into Jimmy's lab, he dons a disguise that consists of: Groucho glasses, a camera, and a Universal hat. Jimmy sees right through it, but apparently no one else did.

  • This was the main gimmick for the Purr Tender toy line: fluffy plush cats wearing fake ears and muzzles so they could pass as 'exotic' animals like dogs and mice. (The fact that they could all communicate with humans and came in pink and purple apparently didn't make them exotic enough.) Somehow, the disguises worked... until they started purring.

    Visual Novels 
  • Maji De Watashi Ni Koi Shinasai has Ms. Kishido. The only different thing she's wearing is the mask. This might have worked had she not been a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner in Japan with her equally distinctive not-disguise-wearing protector along with her. A few people are actually fooled, though.
  • Ace Attorney:
    • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Apollo never notices the uncanny resemblance between the picture on the wall at the Wright and Co Offices and the victim of his first case (not even noting familiarity) even when the only difference is a goatee. On the other hand, Phoenix notices from the first meeting. The player, on the other hand, stands a chance of noticing at first glance, even without color.
    • Furio Tigre disguises himself as Phoenix Wright in order to frame someone for murder. This 'disguise' consists of a suit, a fake attorney's badge (made of cardboard!) and loudly proclaiming himself to be Phoenix Wright. It works despite every major player in the case knowing Phoenix personally. Because they have the same hairstyle. ... Furio Tigre is huge and orange. The defendant mentions that everyone in the courtroom had "big question marks on their faces" when Not Phoenix made his appearance, but every time someone tried to point this out, Furio literally roared them into silence. Even more bizarrely, the disguise is apparently good enough to fool the player — the first you see of Furio Tigre is in the chapter intro where Phoenix Wright loses a case... and he's rendered as completely indistinguishable from the real Phoenix.
    • Trials and Tribulations subverts this with Dahlia Hawthorne when she appears to turn up in "Bridge to the Turnabout" with a different hair colour and nun's garments (retaining the same hairstyle and mannerisms, thus the Paper-Thin Disguise). The subversion? It's actually her twin sister.
    • Trials and Tribulations, the one difference between Godot and Diego Armando is basically a pallet swap and a face visor.
  • Chris in Princess Waltz. How obvious is it? Before The Reveal, knowing how bad a job she's doing acting, Chris asks in a roundabout way if Arata is sure he doesn't suspect her of anything. And barely refrains from mentioning what: Being a girl. It gets worse. He walks in on her with no disguise (bath) and still doesn't get it. All the yaoi fangirls in the class squee...
  • Little Busters! has Mask the Saito, a mysterious masked man that appears and starts challenging people if, after being returned to the bottom of the battle rankings early on, you can make you way up to the top again. At first glance, it isn't obvious who it is, but as soon as he starts talking it's very clearly Kyousuke's voice. If you lose to him, he doesn't even bother to keep up the charade, turning around and walking off (revealing distinctive red/brown hair) while throwing the mask away. Riki is faintly bemused by the entire thing, but plays along.
  • Katawa Shoujo parodies this to demonstrate just how detached from reality Kenji really is. During one of their encounters, Kenji mentions that he's going to the store and Hisao, well acquainted with his paranoia at this point, sarcastically asks if it's safe for him to go outside. Kenji, immune to sarcasm, counters that he's safely disguised because he has a hat. (Bonus points: he's not even wearing a hat.)
  • In Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors's "Safe" ending, Junpei pulls one on Ace, revealing the latter as the villain. Justified in that Ace suffers from prosopagnosia (better explained in the Real Life subpage) and cannot tell faces apart at all, which means Junpei only needed to get the clothes of another "player" to impersonate that person successfully.

Alternative Title(s):

Strangely Effective Disguise