Don't you know who I am? Mr Toad may have escaped from prison as a washerwoman, but real-life incognitos seldom get disguises right

Bin Laden favoured a cowboy hat, but how does his ruse compare to other masters of disguise?

Ever since the Book of Genesis, in which Jacob puts goat skin on his hands and neck to trick his blind old dad, mankind has been nuts about disguise. It became a popular trope in British culture down the centuries. Shakespeare’s characters regularly disguise themselves, in both his comedies (Viola dressed as a boy in Twelfth Night) and his tragedies (Edgar got up as a lunatic called Tom O’Bedlam in King Lear.) Sherlock Holmes counted a week wasted in which he didn’t impersonate a beggar, an Italian priest or an asthmatic sailor to astonish Dr Watson and confound his enemies. In The Wind in the Willows, Mr Toad escapes from prison by disguising himself as a washerwoman.

Real-life incognitos, however, seldom get disguises right. Michael Jackson, on his gimme-everything-in-the-shop retail sprees, often chose the cunning strategy of wearing a baggy blue jumpsuit and a ski mask so that everyone in the shop would laugh and point and shout: “Who is that pillock?” Sometimes he’d settle for the full burqa-with-niqab-and-black-gloves look – combined with fancy trainers and three white children, suggesting to the passer-by that he might not be a 100 per cent Muslim. Princess Michael of Kent, on a bus tour of southern Africa, decided to darken her skin and dye her hair black to “get to know the real Africa”. Not a great idea. The Queen’s cousin later admitted: “I didn’t get away with it.”

Slightly less damaging to international affairs was Justin Timberlake’s innovative approach to avoid being recognised at the Comic Con extravaganza. He asked Esquire’s Chris Jones to join him in the costumes of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie while being interviewed for a profile piece. 

For wild inventiveness, however, Osama bin Laden walks off with the Garibaldis. According to Al Jazeera, a document in the hands of the Pakistani government reveals that, among other mild eccentricities, the al-Qa’ida warlord wore a hat to disguise himself. Not just any old hat – he affected a wide-brimmed cowboy hat when walking around his compound, to prevent him from being identified by airplanes or helicopters. We’re not sure a Stetson is the ideal fashion look for the thin-faced jihadist (Dylan’s famous line: “It balances on your head like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine.”) but it clearly did the trick and hid him from discovery.

What suspicious helicopter pilots must have thought, on seeing a Texan cowpoke wandering about the Pakistani-Afghan border, is anybody’s guess…

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