A few years ago, I saw a gorgeous photo on Flickr of people with pearl buttons sewn all over their clothes in amazing patterns, and my obsession with “Pearlies” began. I immediately started bidding on eBay auctions for pearl buttons and dug out an old black jacket in hopes of making my own. But, after a year of procrastinating, I decided that I’d better just write this column and show you some of the amazing photos I found of the real deal – the authentic Pearlies.
After some research, I found out that Pearlies are dedicated charity workers who raise money for a variety of organizations in London. There are about 40 families active today in different official guilds and groups – here’s an interesting glimpse of the current officers in The Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association.
The whole Pearly scene was started in 1875 by Henry Croft, an orphaned boy who began working as a street sweeper at the age of 13. He became friends with some street market vendors known as the Costermongers. Here’s the best description I’ve found of how the tradition started:
Street traders, or ‘Costermongers’ as they became known, have been an important feature of London life since the 11th century … unlicensed and itinerant … hounded by the authorities & bureaucracy. They cried their wares to attract customers with vigour and panache – much to the annoyance of London’s ‘well-to-do’ society …
Costers admired style & panache. They had evolved a showmanship and cheeky banter that boosted their custom. With typical coster cheek they imitated the wealthy West End society who by early 19th Century had developed a fashion for wearing pearls – only the costers took it one step further by sewing lines of pearl ‘flashies’ on their battered hand-me-down waistcoats, caps and working trousers.
(excerpted from pearlykingsandqueens.com)
The Costermongers took care of each other and the less fortunate, which inspired Henry to do the same – initially for those he had left back at the orphanage. He knew he’d have to draw attention to himself, so taking a cue from the Costers’ “flashies,” he started saving pearl buttons found while street sweeping and sewed them to his hat. He kept going until his entire suit was covered in pearl buttons. He used the attention he garnered from his crazily fancy suit to raise money for charity and soon the Costermongers joined in, creating some of the first Pearly families in London.
An interesting crafty side note is that the male Pearlies do all of the button sewing, to this day. Since Henry was an orphan he had no one to help him with his suit, so he had to learn how to sew. This started the tradition, which is still carried on by descendants of original Pearly Families, that the Kings do all the designs and sewing.
I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired to grab a needle and thread. I may just get my own Pearly jacket yet – with a subversive twist, of course. If you want to try some of the more traditional patterns, there are scads of images all over the web. And if you really want to be traditional, get a man to do your stitchin’ for you! Let me know how that works out.
Here are a few of the main Pearly group sites, with more photos and information.
About the Author:
Julie Jackson is the creator of Subversive Cross Stitch, and Kitty Wigs. She has also authored two books: Subversive Cross Stitch: 33 Designs for Your Surly Side and Glamourpuss: The Enchanting World of Kitty Wigs.