This week's button fact I want to share with you is about the Pearlies from London, also called the Pearly Kings and Queens. The Pearlies are raising money for charities and can often be seen around London participating in various Parades and Carnivals, and the most striking thing about them is that they wear clothing that is fully covered with mother of pearl buttons. The magnificent suits, hats and dresses, are handed down from generation to generation as well as the Pearly King and Queen titles.
The tradition started in 1875 with an orphan called Henry Croft, roadsweeper from profession, who wanted to help those who were more unfortunate than himself and realised that in order to collect a lot of money he needed to draw attention to himself which was quite difficult for the very small man as he was (less than 5 feet tall). So as Henry swept the market streets he started to collect all the pearl buttons he found that had fallen off of the clothes of people visiting the market, and when he had enough he started to sew them on his cap and then continued until his entire brown wool suit was filled. The idea he got from the clothing of the London costermongers that had pearl buttons sewn on the piped seams of their trousers and waistcoats. They distinguished themselves from the other market traders in this way. It is said to have sprung from a Japanese cargo ship that lost its cargo of pearl buttons in the Thames in the 1860's. The costermongers looked after each other if they were sick or in need by organizing a collection. Traditionally, costers elected "Kings" to lead them against bullies seeking to drive them from their pitches. Henry Croft was in so much demand for his charity work, as many of London's hospitals, workhouses and orphanages needed help, that he turned to the costermongers. Many of the costermongers became the first Pearly Families. There were 28 families, one for each of the London boroughs, one for the City of Westminster, and one for the City of London.
Each outfit can hold many tens of thousands of buttons on it and can weigh as much as 30 kilograms or more. There are two types of suit - a Smother Suit and a Skeleton Suit, the former having very little cloth showing and totally covered in buttons (those are the oldest costumes), and the latter having far fewer buttons, often decorated with mystic symbols, like stars, moons, suns, flowers, diamonds, Trees of Life, Eyes of God and fertility designs. Some of the early costumes are still worn today.
Modern re-inventions of the pearlies concept:
The London Pearly Kings and Queens Society
The Button Lover's Book (Creative Machine Arts Series) by Marilyn V. Green