Essay: All for Charity - London’s Pearlies

by Amy de la Haye on 12 April 2023

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores London’s working-class Pearlies.

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores London’s working-class Pearlies.

An ‘orphan’ (lacking provenance) snapshot, London Pearly performing his button finery at a jamboree raising money for charity, 1960s. Courtesy Amy de la Haye

For over 150 years, London’s working-class Pearlies have raised many millions of pounds for charity. Their USP? The shimmering, shell button-decorated, ceremonial costumes they wear to attend public and civic events, including the harvest festival. Their name is derived from the popular description of shell buttons as pearl (used interchangeably here). This Fashion in a Time of Crisis essay explores the evolution of the Pearlies and unravels the creation and symbolism underpinning their resplendent, and very weighty, costumes.

‘Stars at Blind Children’s Garden Party’, Regent’s Park, 13 July 1960. The Pearly King and Queen of Hampstead - Beck and Bert Williams - photographed “Doing the Lambeth Walk” (from the 1937 musical Me and My Girl) with actress Margaret Leighton. Central Press Photos Ltd. Courtesy Amy de la Haye

The story is believed to start with one Henry Croft (1861-1930), an East End road sweeper born in Somers Town workhouse; the institution, along with the asylum, most feared by the poor, destitute and sick. Croft, a man with a flair for style and showmanship, dedicated his life to raising money for local hospitals. The dictionary defines 'charity' as the voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need. The word stems from the Latin noun ‘caritas’ which is derived from the adjective ‘carus’ meaning ‘dear’. Being charitable expresses a disposition for empathy, selflessness, compassion, benevolence and tolerance. It is not a coincidence that a heart motif – seen on many Pearly costumes - symbolises charity as well as love.

In order to attract attention whilst street collecting, Croft decorated his sturdy, brown checked suit with smoked (grey) shell buttons. In the late 1870s, London’s East End boasted a thriving shell button industry, but the term ‘cheap as buttons’ does not apply here. Shell buttons were never cheap and it is probable many were removed from old clothes. At this time, pearl buttons were conventionally applied to fasten elegant waistcoats, gloves and shoes. In contrast, Croft’s use was entirely decorative. He may have been inspired by the local costermongers (street traders) practice of sewing a line of buttons, known as a 'flash', down their trouser seam to attract potential customers and/or by music hall costumes to capture the light. For a working-class man to appear in public donning such a ‘showy’ garment would have been deemed impertinent (he didn’t ‘know his place’) and subversive. As such - like the everyday dress of many future subcultures - his dress was considered deviant and a potential threat to the status quo. However, his community was enraptured, and by the 1880s every London borough had created their own Pearly community headed by, what would become, a hereditary king, queen and extended royal family.

‘Pearl’ shell buttons were produced in a variety of shapes and sizes with various incised and notched designs. Courtesy Amy de la Haye
They were sold in natural ‘white’ and ‘smoked’ grey and later offered dyed in multiple colours. An occasional red button or buckle appears on a Pearly costume. Courtesy Amy de la Haye

Every Pearly outfit is personalised and unique. Garments are decorated by the wearer or within families, with men taking an active role. Designs, motifs and words are symbolic, familial and territorial. During the late 19th century, many Pearly men sold potted plants for a living (women dominated the cut flower industry). A potted plant design, referred to as ‘three pots a shilling’ (after a song sung by East End musical hall singer Kate Carney), was considered good luck for vital job security and can be seen on many costumes. Likewise, a stylised donkey and horse shoe are considered lucky. A bell suggests a Pearly is an East Ender, born within the sound of Bow church bells. Faith was represented by a cross, hope by an anchor and charity, as stated earlier, a heart. A circle represents the sun and/or the wheel of fortune.

Pearlies are famously territorial. Emblazoned across the back of a garment their name, title and/or borough are characteristic. Figurative and textual designs are combined with patterning, notably stripes, checked and lattice work, the latter featuring a central spot, and simple flower shapes. The most skilled Pearlies created textural patterns of overlapping buttons. As shell buttons were always pricey, excessive usage conferred agency and status. A smother coat is the name of a garment that reveals not a glimpse of fabric. Involving some 30,000 buttons, they can weigh up to 30kg! A 1926 news cutting features a female Pearly wearing men’s braces beneath her jacket, to help support the weight of her skirt. Waxed button hole thread – usually white or red – secures the buttons in place.

Below: Gloucestershire Journal 1926 (date not known). The editorial communicates admiration, but it is – especially to contemporary readers - patronising and offensive.

Left: ‘Mr and Mrs George Atkins, the Pearly King and Queen of Walham Green, whose infant son is to have a pearly christening next Sunday. Mr Atkins is adjusting his wife’s braces, which are necessary because her pearly skirt is so heavy.’ Right: ‘Dressed for the christening, with their elder son, George, the Pearly Prince of Fulham. They refuse the idea that costers no longer wear pearlies and “fevvers”. Mr Atkins suit has 22,000 pearl buttons, and his wife’s hat with its “fevvers” is worth nearly £9. Mr Atkins decorates both his and her clothes.’

For women, accessories comprise a magnificent Gainsborough hat (named after the 1783 portrait by artist Thomas Gainsborough of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wearing a wide brimmed feathered hat of her own design) bedecked with up to 20 dyed and curled ostrich feathers; button decorated bags, shoes and umbrellas. Pearl (not shell) earrings are also popular. For men a peaked cap is standard and some wear decorated shoes. By the 1940s London (and Birmingham’s) shell button industries could no longer compete with cheap imports and fell into decline. However, no self-respecting Pearly would wear plastic (acrylic and polyester) buttons. The term ‘plastic Pearly’ was entirely derisive. Today, mudlarkers on the Thames find residues of London’s shell button industry and surviving retail display cards evidence this lost heritage.

‘The Pearlies say goodbye to their queen mother’ 23 January 1976. Keystone Press Agency. ‘Mrs Beatrice Marriott, 73, was carried by Pearly Kings and Queens in a coffin draped with her pearl- buttoned cloak and hat. Following the coffin was a procession of all the other Pearlies in their full regalia. Mrs Marriott was the senior Pearly queen of London.’ This event took place as Punk was emerging on the streets of London. Courtesy Amy de la Haye.

Tragically, Henry Croft died where he was born, in Somers Town workhouse. During his lifetime he was crowned ‘Pearly King of the World’. A life-size marble statue of remembrance, depicting Croft proud as Punch, in his smother coat and top hat, was commissioned in his honour. It was subsequently moved to St Martin in the Fields church, where Pearly events are still held, for safekeeping. As in Croft's day, due to years of governmental underfunding and mismanagement, our hospitals require massive investment and depend upon charity, with all too many people slipping through the NHS’s (est. 1948) bureaucratic net. During the pandemic, fashion and textiles designers, makers and manufacturers stepped in to provide vital charity by making PPE.

Examples of Pearly costumes and ephemera can be seen at Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain curated by Simon Costin and Mellany Robinson, Museum of British Folklore, with the author, Amy de la Haye, Centre for Fashion Curation UAL, at Compton Verney until 11 June.

The Museum of London, currently closed whilst moving, has examples of Pearly costume in its collections.



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