I’m pretty sure the first time I ran into the idea of a Paper-Thin Disguise was reading a book on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. That incident was quite literal. The people looking for her knew Tubman couldn’t read, so when a black woman who otherwise matched her description calmly held up a newspaper in front of her face and started turning pages, they moved on.
Facial recognition software may make this Trope harder to pull off in the future, but in a lot of circumstances it’ll probably still hold. Characters are, after all, only human (Vulcan, dragon, whatever), and so far as we can tell, thinking creatures don’t work off straight sight. They work off search images. Throw off one aspect of that image, don’t be what someone is looking for, and – as a ninja may have said – “to not be seen, is to be invisible”.
Three examples jumped out at me when I was poking this thought. Cybersix, Miraculous Ladybug, and Magi.
Cybersix’s is the most elaborate disguise; glasses, men’s clothes, a different hairstyle and a lowered voice, all to pass as a male English teacher. The removing-the-disguise sequence is very effective, especially with the glasses spin across the table. My bunnies still say this counts as paper-thin, because “he” works every day with Cybersix’s love interest, Lucas, undetected. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the attitude. Lucas is looking for a confident, superhuman, mysterious woman in dramatic black. The shy English teacher in round glasses and suspenders looks almost as nerdily opposite that search image as you can get.
Ladybug pulls off another variant of seriously messing with search images. Her outfit has been described as leaving nothing to the imagination. IMHO, that’s part of what makes it so effective for disguising her secret identity: everyone knows exactly what Ladybug looks like. Meaning wipe away the visible red-and-black spots, throw on a few clothes to disguise her outline, and bam. Instant invisible teenager.
Last, there’s Alibaba with the Fog Troupe. That one isn’t proof against Morgiana (darn Fanalis nose), but it does work for most of Balbadd. In that case, again, he doesn’t fit the search image. Who expects the third prince of Balbadd to be dressed as a common thief? And since the vast majority of the city has never seen Alibaba the prince, he’s as invisible as the next blond in the street.
For me as a writer, the frustrating thing about Paper-Thin Disguises is they have the most impact in a visual medium, not a written one. They are, in a sense, the most effective when the audience can easily get in on the joke. “But isn’t that-? Can’t they see?”
So, poke this idea as you will. Anyone seen Paper-Thin Disguises pulled off well in written fic? And how did the writer do it?