Have you ever dressed up in disguise to deceive someone? And more importantly, did they fall for it?
In fairy tales, villains in particular love to disguise themselves to try and trick their protagonists and achieve their malevolent goals.
But what’s the ‘art’ behind these disguises? How are they achieved, and what do they mean for the reader?
The art of dressing up
Dressing up in some type of clothing is perhaps the most common form of disguise in fairy tales.
In Fitcher’s Bird, two forms of disguise take place: the sorcerer first disguises himself as a “poor man” so that he can go begging from house to house and kidnap women to be his brides, and later on, his bride disguises herself as a bird by dipping herself “into a barrel of honey” and rolling around in feathers.
In the Goose Girl, the bitter chambermaid forces the princess to swap clothes with her, handing over her “royal garments” and thereby tricking the betrothed prince and his kingdom.
But the most obvious example that comes to mind is Little Red Cap. Of course, we all know the story of Red Riding Hood and its iconic scene where she encounters the wolf in her grandmother’s clothing.
We are not given much detail about how the wolf’s disguise comes about; we are only told that the wolf eats grandma and then puts on “her clothes and her nightcap.”
And when Little Red Cap arrives at the house, we learn that, “there lay her grandmother with her cap pulled down over her face giving her a strange appearance.”
In the fairy tale of Snow White (one of my favourites), Snow White’s stepmother, the wicked queen, also utilises the act of ‘dressing up’ to disguise herself, so that she can get rid of Snow White and become the “fairest of all.”
In three instances, the queen dresses up as an old peddler, an old woman and a peasant woman and each time, she succeeds in her plan to attempt to kill Snow White.
But in this fairy tale, the art of disguise also thickens a little. Here, it goes beyond mere dressing up — the queen also uses makeup to achieve her desired look: “She painted her face and dressed as an old peddler woman so that nobody could recognize her.”
In another much-loved tale of mine, The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids (as a child, I was fascinated by the idea of ‘zipping’ open the wolf’s belly and filling it up with stones), we also see other forms of disguise that don’t rely on clothing.
“I want you to be on your guard against the wolf,” the old goat explains to her kids before she goes into the forest to fetch some food. “That villain often disguises himself, but you can recognise him right away by his gruff voice and black feet.”
As expected, the wolf tries to get into the house several times while the mother goat is gone. At first, the kids recognise his ‘gruff voice’ and refuse to let him in. So, the wolf attempts to disguise his voice:
“The wolf went away to a shopkeeper and bought a big piece of chalk, which he ate, and it made his voice soft. Then he returned, knocked at the door, and called out, ‘Open up dear children. Your mother’s back and has brought something for each one of you.”
Of course, it doesn’t work, because the kids also recognise the wolf’s black paw.
The wolf intimidates a miller into sprinkling “white flour” on his paw (a similar application to the queen’s makeup, perhaps) and finally, his ‘disguise’ works.
Disguises and how they work
Disguises in fairy stories represent yet another element of the dangers and tests we must face, navigate and overcome (whether in the fairy tale world or the real one or within our own psyche) as we grow up and achieve maturity.
I would also like to point out three other things that I think are significant about how disguises work in the fairy realm:
Like must else in fairy tales, they are not elaborate or elaborately described within the language. We are simply told he puts something on or she paints her face and dresses in these clothes. There’s no detail; it’s up to our imaginations as to what these disguises really look like.
Villainous disguises are also achieved by practical means in fairy tales (using clothes, applying makeup etc.). They are not achieved via magic.
This practicality is a stark contradiction within a world that is filled with immediate wonder and enchantment, a place where everything is magical. By keeping disguises practical, we are being told: Look, deceit does not belong here! It is not a part of our norm.
In contrast, when ‘good’ characters try to disguise themselves, they are often helped by magic.
Even Cinderella, who disguises herself to go the King’s wedding, has her dress bestowed upon her (or thrown down to her) by a bird, who is commonly said to represent the spirit of her dead mother.
2. DISGUISES ALWAYS WORK
Whoever is at the receiving end of the disguise always falls for it, if not immediately than at least eventually.
And succumbing to the deception always leads to dire outcomes within the narrative:
Snow White essentially dies, as does Little Red Cap, who is also metaphorically raped.
The goat’s kids end up being eaten. The Goose Girl has her identity stolen altogether.
And the daughters in Fitcher’s Bird are abducted, killed and chopped into parts (except for the last daughter, of course).
3. DISGUISES ARE DRAMATICALLY IRONIC
That is, they rely on dramatic irony to work.
In almost every tale that includes a disguise, we are positioned by the narrative as readers who know that a disguise is in play, even when the protagonists or other characters don’t.
We know that Grandma is really the Big Bad Wolf, even though Red Riding Hood doesn’t. We know that the old peddler woman is really the wicked queen, even though Snow White is oblivious to this. In Cinderella, we know she’s the beauty of the ball, despite the fact that no one else can pick it.
We’re privy to what the villains are doing and to the fact that they are dressing up, and much of the conflict in fairy tales develops as we are forced to watch the encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist (and other characters) play out.