They’re called the Pearly Kings and Queens or The Pearlies and they’ve been around for a century, which makes them pretty recent as far as English traditions go. The movement got its start in London with Henry Croft, an orphan street sweeper. Despite being pretty bad off himself, he wanted to raise money for charity. He needed a way to attract attention so as he went about his rounds he picked up any pearl buttons he found and fashioned an elaborate suit out of them. This made him a walking advertisement for good causes. In 1911 the first Pearly society was formed.
The thousands of buttons take weeks to sew on and suits can weigh up to 80 kg (176 lbs). Each design has a meaning, like an anchor for hope. You can see a full list of symbols here. The Pearlies do events throughout the year, with September’s Harvest Festival being the main event. The London Pearly Kings and Queens Society is having a second Harvest festival at St. Paul’s on October 9, so if you’re in town, head on over and see some Cockney fun.
[Photo courtesy Garry Knight]