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So there's this character on TV, and he looks like a nebbish. He's rather nerdy, pretty scrawny, not too attractive, and likely to faint at the mere sight of blood. What a geek, huh?
...Until he takes his shirt off, and—surprise—he's packed! He's got abs of steel, his guns are fully loaded, and he can probably crush coal into diamonds with his massive pecs... Good Lord, he's a Genius Bruiser who's been hiding the "Bruiser" part all along!
A Clark Kent Outfit is, basically, any article of clothing that hides a character's well-toned physique from the audience, setting audiences for surprise when it's used, especially for harmless-looking fellows. Can apply to women as well, often leading to a Beautiful All Along moment.
Note that while the actor has to be able to fit into the physique-concealing costume when this trope is used in live-action works, no such restriction applies to other media, and thus it's possible to have a character reveal muscles (or curves) that couldn't possibly have fit inside the outfit they were wearing beforehand. This can be Played for Laughs.
Anime & Manga
- Bleach: Captain Yamamoto wears robes almost all of the time and appears to be a stooped-over old man. When he removes his robes, he reveals that he has a powerfully muscled body.
- Fullmetal Alchemist's Edward Elric is a short intellectual teenager but so incredibly buff under his jacket that he ends up shirtless all the time. He ends up shirtless like, almost every other fight scene.
- It's also initially done to hide his automail arm and leg. By the way he runs around in the first episode of the first series, you'd never guess he was a double amputee.
- Dragon Ball has Master Roshi, a scrawny little hunchbacked pervert who almost doubles in height, shoulder width and muscle mass when he first takes off his shirt.
- For an in-universe example, Gohan's high-school outfit almost looks like it's a size too large, undoubtedly to help hide the fact that he's built like a... well, like a Saiyan. It works, too, at least enough to make Videl initially think he's harmless.
- Takamatsu from Angel Beats! tears off his shirt dramatically in the middle of class and reveals a very muscular figure in episode 5. No one cares.
Takamatsu: Sensei, the truth is, I actually look thinner wearing clothes!
- Then when he rejoins the group no one cares about his reveal and Yuri just chastises him for not thinking of a better distraction.
Takamatsu: I thought it would be surprising, that no one would see it coming, I train in secret...
- At the end of the second season of Darker Than Black, this is done by Kirihara's new boss, who looks like Golgo 13 if he was a staid Japanese bureaucrat. He takes off his shirt and reveals he's really ripped and he wields a BFG.
- Kamishiro Yuu from Holyland looks harmless under his school uniform, but, as his opponents quickly learn and a classmate who grabbed his arm once commented, his muscles are rock-hard from all of that street fighting.
- In Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, the teacher Jinroku is a friendly and unassuming guy who is balding and wears glasses. Under his shirt though, he's fairly muscular (certainly compared to 90 pound weakling Nozomu) and has a large Yakuza tattoo.
- Jiji from Ichi the Killer is a tiny old man, but when he takes off his shirt he has a bodybuilder's physique, and neck snaps a Yakuza without breaking a sweat. It helps that he's really only 30 years old, but got plastic surgery to make his face appear older.
- Enishi and Hiko Seijūrō XIII of Rurouni Kenshin wear cloaks most of the time, and pretty much look like slim Bishonen. When both take off those cloaks, they are extremely muscular. This is sort of plot important because Kenshin's lithe frame puts him at a disadvantage when fighting either of them, since his body isn't really meant to be performing those strenuous sword-fighting maneuvers.
- Kotetsu T. Kaburagi from Tiger and Bunny appears to have normal, even lanky, physique... until the shirt comes off and it becomes apparent he's, well, a superhero.
- Hinata Hyuga's uniform is more about shyness than a secret identity, but her bulky jacket and loose pants are definitely designed to hide her physique.
- Superman offers the Trope Namer, as his alter ego, Clark Kent, was modeled specifically for this purpose; namely, a spineless man (with glasses, of course) to hide his superhuman strength. All-Star Superman has him wearing multiple layers of clothing to appear flabby rather than skinny.
- In some depictions, his glasses are also used to hide eyes so incredibly blue and bright they clearly aren't human.
- Possibly the greatest success of the Christopher Reeve movies was that he could pull off both meek Clark Kent and Superman and still fool people on the set into thinking that he was two different actors. Sure, the Clark Kenting jokes still won't stop, but people generally agree that Reeve made it believable.
- Peter Parker is a less emphasized example, but few would guess that his regular clothes hide a sinewy physique.
- Back when Steve Ditko was still drawing Amazing Spider-Man, his costume did the same thing.
- There was an issue of Spectacular Spider-Man where a private detective had deduced who Spider-Man was, and suggested that Spidey (who he remarked was built very lean, but "like a Ferrari") would most likely utilize baggy clothes to hide his physique. Unfortunately for him, he deduced that Jameson was Spider-Man. Jameson was most likely not amused.
- In Ultimate Spider-Man, Gwen notes that Peter's "all muscle" when she, Peter and Eddie Brock are crammed into the same car. He claims to be into pilates.
- John's cloak in With Strings Attached makes him look like his normal, skinny Earth self. Take it off, however, and he's a winged demigod.
Films — Animated
- The Thief and the Cobbler: Tack, the eponymous cobbler, is a Cute Mute Adorkable for most of the film, but gets half of his clothes ripped off in the climax. He also gets a tan, better posture, and finally talks... in the voice of Sean Connery.
Films — Live-Action
- One of the best examples comes from the 1985 Jackie Chan / Sammo Hung action comedy My Lucky Stars. Michiko Nishiwaki, in her first film role, is seen in the first part of the film wearing a kimono and acting in a very stereotypically demure Japanese lady-like way. And then she takes off the kimono. To understand the significance of this, Michiko Nishiwaki was Japan's first female powerlifting champion and the nation's first female bodybuilding champion.
- The John Ritter comedy Skin Deep had Ritter's character pick up an attractive blonde at a bar. When they get back to the bedroom, she takes off the dress. She was played by Raye "Zap" Hollitt, later one of the first American Gladiators.
- Early in The Prestige, the protagonists have to work out how an weak old magician can hide a full fishtank. Turns out that he's strong enough to grip it between his legs, pretending to be weak every minute of every day of his life. Of course, the character who figures this out is equally devoted.
- In Peter David's novelization of Spider-Man 2, Jameson taps Peter Parker on the chest and is momentarily taken aback to discover "the seemingly scrawny Parker had pecs that felt like metal slabs".
- Ichi the Killer: Jiji, the little old chessmaster, wears baggy clothing throughout the film. At the very end, his strips to his underwear to reveal a ridiculously muscled body.
- Carlton in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He may be short, but he could still make a fair amount of men feel pretty inferior about their bodies.
- A possibly unintentional example; Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is fairly ripped for a supposedly unattractive geek. Up until the season 2 episode "Go Fish" Xander's outfits were scruffy over sized Hawaiian shirts. Then he joins the swim team. Even Cordelia looks interested.
- In one episode of Friends, Phoebe is dating two men at the same time, one of whom is very sensitive while the other is very buff. Deciding to choose brains over brawns, she tries to dump the buff guy... until he also turns out to be very sensitive. That means he has more advantages than the sensitive guy, right? Well, when Phoebe goes to his house to dump him instead, she sees him shirtless for the first time, and, well... this trope happens.
- Crispin Glover as he infamously appeared on The David Letterman Show looked especially scrawny, and he was just wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt... until he tried to challenge Letterman to arm wrestling, at which point Glover pulled up his sleeve and showed off his ridiculously muscled biceps to the audience.
- Oddly, Jenny's fiancé from the first season of The L Word was like this. Any scene where he took his shirt off was hard to pay attention to because I was too busy trying to figure out where he'd been hiding those incredibly well-developed arms.
- Dollhouse has a subtle example in "Briar Rose" that pays off in a major way a few minutes later.
- Jack Hodgins on Bones is all geek, but in the first season Christmas episode he takes off his shirt and is very buff indeed.
- In Stargate SG-1, Daniel Jackson wore baggy shirts for the first few seasons of the series and fit the stereotypical nerd profile, but later on he Took a Level In Badass and got to show off some impressive biceps.
- Jimmy Palmer from NCIS was revealed in season 9 to have a great set of abs. To Abbs, and even Gibbs comments.
- Belgarath from the David Eddings series Belgariad/Mallorean/prequels is apparently ripped. He tends to wear loose, scruffy robes and drink a lot, so not obvious when other characters see him, but it becomes noticed when he de-robes to get in the water.
- Taken to absurdity in this Lowroad Comics strip.
- Wren from White Noise has a thin, lanky build and looks pretty scrawny. In the early strips he looks like a full-blown Noodle Person. (He's also a long-haired Bishonen, so he looks downright girly.) But when we see him shirtless, he's ripped.
- The Simpsons
- Ned Flanders, Homer's fundamentally religious Christian neighbor and do-gooder, wears a sweater that hides his comically well-developed body, much to Homer's envy.
- Groundskeeper Willie's physique looks a bit like Popeye's, with large forearms and an otherwise unexceptional upper body, but whenever he removes his shirt, he's muscled like a He Man doll.
- Parodied in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, where SpongeBob and Patrick compete against each other in the Fry Cook Olympics, and they both rip off their shirts to reveal Herculean bodies for a wrestling competition. This is just for a one-time joke, of course; Patrick is otherwise always shirtless and overweight, while SpongeBob himself has trouble lifting even a barbell made out of teddy bears.
- The lawyer from The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack who takes up Flapjack as an apprentice. Captain K'nuckles challenges him to a boxing fight in order to get Flapjack back, but when he takes off his business suit, not only does he show lots of muscle, but he grows in height as well!
- One female example is Clara's sister Bleh in Drawn Together. She's severely mentally challenged, wears a helmet and heavy clothing, and appears to have cerebral palsy, but when she puts on a bikini, she looks like a (cross-eyed) Playboy model.
- Bumi, the King of Omashu from Avatar: The Last Airbender looks like a harmless, hunched-over old man wearing an obnoxiously ornate outfit but when Aang chooses to challenge him to save his friends, he throws off his robes and reveals a frighteningly ripped old man.
- Futurama has a variation of this. In the episode "Raging Bender", Bender constantly annoys a taller, lankier robot with an innocent-sounding voice during a showing at the movie theater, causing him to start a fight with him. Trouble is, the robot proceeds to sport several pounds of metal on his body, turning him into his alter-ego: famous robot wrestler "The Masked Unit."
- Metalocalypse—childlike Toki is seen to be quite fit, in spite of the dissipated lifestyle he and his bandmates live.
- Mass Effect 2 gives Shepard a drastically different physique depending on what he's wearing. Just compare his arms in the default attire to the "Roughneck" version.
- When not busy eviscerating anyone on the planet who's come into contact with a particular sword, Ivy Valentine wears a Tudor gown and passes for a noblewoman.
- Actor/comedian Chris Elliot has made a career out of playing semi-unattractive pathetic losers who, at best, end up as the comic relief sidekick and at worst are the constant target of abuse from everyone around them. In these roles he wears a lot of baggy sweatshirts and other loose clothing out of necessarity. Turns out that Elliot, among other things, is a Real Life weightlifting fanatic and has a body that looks like its made out of cast iron.
- The physical demands of acting in general means many actors are often more physically fit than they might appear.