The Pearly Kings and Queens, a charitable working-class organisation and tradition originating from London’s ‘costermongers’ used a variety of processes in the construction of their unique costumes, many of which are still employed today.
To create the symbolic and intricate patterns on their suits, Pearlies not only sourced the pearl buttons but also used dye to change their colour, as well as dyeing ostrich feather adornments allowing for richer and more flamboyant styles. The ostrich feathers were worn by Pearly Queens and Princesses in their Gainsborough hats, some Kings and Queens used red or gold thread, combined jewels and other buttons to innovate their extravagant designs further.
These processes were often seized in liminal, transient spaces, the continual upkeep of their costumes was demanding and time-consuming, and the constraints of their daily working lives – not to mention their charitable duties- would’ve meant a degree of spontaneity and multi-tasking was crucial to their execution. Stephanie Jolly, The Pearly Queen of Sydenham, would sew buttons on her jacket during lectures at City University, London, and was described as attaching them onto her suit whilst on the bus, minutes before meeting Princess Anne at St James Palace.
BBC News Girl with a pearl costume, Marie Jackson, 2 June 2006.
London’s costermongers are a perfect example of the liminal nature of street trading. Using the alleyways and back streets to sell their wares, early coster trades were unlicensed, and as such they were often harassed by the authorities. London’s costermongers initiated a form of Trade Unionism, where members elected Pearly Kings to take care of the interests in each of the boroughs; this was the beginning of the Pearlies, a tradition which would be handed down for generations.
P. Binder, The Pearlies: A Social Record Pearl Binder, 1975
P. F. Brooks, Pearly Kings and Queens in Britain, Barry Rose publishers, 1974