USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘costume’
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Theatre Occupational Superstition: Peacock Feathers on Stage

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There are more explanations to this superstition than the one I know, but the one I am aware of is that peacock feathers have all these eyes.  And that you either don’t want all those eyes staring at you, or you don’t want all those extra eyes taking away your eyes as an actor.  But I think there are more versions of that story.  There is something that is connected to the past on that one.  And that is one that, more than the others that I know of, some of the old actors take that one really seriously.  And I’ve always felt that if someone involved in the production does believe in that superstition, honor the superstition and don’t use the peacock feathers in the production.  But that is one that they have the right to have that superstition, because you don’t want that competition with all those eyes.”

Analysis:

In my research I was not able to determine the historical reasoning behind why peacock feathers are unlucky in theater.  However, the idea that peacock feathers are unlucky is not unique to theater and can be found in British superstition and Greek superstition, which features the idea that the peacock feathers contain the Evil Eye.  Perhaps because the theater has such a strong heritage from England and Greece, these superstitions have become integrated into theater superstitions.

My informant draws particular attention to the idea that having extra eyes on the actor is bad luck.  In this logic, I don’t understand why having extra eyes on the actor would be a bad thing because you want the attention to be on the actor.  But if the extra eyes are symbolic of the Evil Eye, and we are looking at the superstition in that context than the lore makes more sense to me.  Having all those Evil Eyes on you is seen as bad luck in English and Greek cultures because they are thought to bring personal injury and misfortune to the person the Eye is on.  When an actor is trying to perform, all their focus should be on the performance at hand.  They can’t focus properly if they are worried about the ill fortune that the Evil Eye will bring to them.

The final idea is that you don’t want all those eyes to take away the audience’s attention or ‘eyes’ is also a possible theory.  In theater the attention should be on the performer, and it is considered bad taste to upstage the actor through the use of a flashy set or costume.  This is because it is the costume, lighting, and set designer’s job to make the actor look good, the focus should be on them.  As another one of my professors at USC wisely puts it, “if the audience is looking at that little detail on the set, than there isn’t something wrong with the set, there is something wrong with the actor.” Therefore, the use of peacock feathers taking away from the attention of the actor possibly comes from the idea that they are very beautiful objects and thus distracting.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Customs
Material

Style of Dress – American

Some American men wear very baggy pants and let them sag to show their boxers. The informant learned the following folk explanation as to the origin of the style “maybe right around high school, or, um, when [she] was just past high school and [her] little brother was doing it when he was in high school. She doesn’t remember from whom she first heard the explanation, but she recalls first seeing the style in high school: “Um, it seemed to be something that, uh, a lot of the African-American guys would do in high school. Uh, but now I see a lot of people do it and it’s just . . . it’s not good [laughter].”

The informant heard that the style originated in prison, where the low man on the sexual totem pole would wear saggy pants: “Basically, uh, young boys and even grown men tend to wear baggy pants or pants that they sag down past their boxer shorts, showing almost all of their boxer shorts, wearing pants that are, you know, a good ten sizes too bit for them. What they don’t realize is the true meaning of the sagging jeans, sagging pants. Uh, it actually stems from prison. Uh, the man who would wear the saggy pants, um, that were sagging past his butt actually indicated that he was the man that men would go to, uh, for, uh, for intercourse. And it showed that he was basically the bitch of the cellblock. So, uh, basically indicated that he was the one who would, uh, take it in the rear, for lack of better terms.”

The informant regards the style itself with a mixture of rue and amusement: “This nugget of knowledge is something that I wish more younger men would understand . . . Um . . . but I don’t think most men get that today who sag their pants. They think it looks cool but they don’t really see that is indicated that they are the, the prison bitch. So I think that that’s interesting. Um, if they do know this they don’t seem to care. Uh, but I think it’s just something that most people who sag their pants aren’t familiar with. So they are, um, unassumingly, uh, displaying their wares, as it were.

The informant shared the explanation with her nephew, “who actually seemed to have gotten the hint once it was explained to him.” She says that she would share it with anyone she felt comfortable with and wanted to have more respect for him- or herself: “If I was comfortable with approaching the individual, egh, like if it was my nephew. Or my brother, or somebody who, um, who is younger than me who I would be an authority—kind of an authority figure to, who would respect my, uh, input. I’m not just going to stop a random guy on the street and say, ‘Hey, you know that means you’re a prison bitch?’ ’cause that’s just not cool. But I think I would if it was somebody that I cared about, like a relative or a workmate or somebody that I, y’know, had a little bit more respect for and wanted them to respect themselves more, I would share that information with them.”

The folk explanation could be true, although it does seem like a story that might be dispensed by parents and other adults to discourage children from wearing a style their relatives find distasteful, as the informant used it on her nephew. It would be effective for that purpose because prison inmates are looked down upon and anal sex is still somewhat taboo, so impressionable boys might not wish to associate themselves with the former or symbolically invite the latter. Saggy pants could be considered an American folk costume, since the style has not been much endorsed by authorities—the folk group being, if this story is true, prison inmates and their imitators.

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