Pearly Queen of Hackney
When I just moved to London I was intrigued by these mysterious people on the streets of Hackney dressed up in black costumes decorated by thousands of pearl buttons. Turned out they are Perly Kings and Queens, an organised charitable tradition of London’s working class culture. The Pearly Royals started in Victorian days and some still reign today in their various London districts. The ‘Pearlies’ were costermongers - street vendors of fruit and vegetables, and their distinctive costumes are said to have sprung from the arrival of a big cargo of pearl-buttons from Japan in the 1860’s. It seems that one of the costers sewed some of the buttons round the edge of his wide-bottomed trousers, and the fashion caught on. Traditionally, costers elected ‘Kings’ to lead them against bullies seeking to drive them from their pitches. The magnificent suits, hats and dresses, handed down together with hereditary titles, are sewn with mystic symbols, stars, moons, suns, flowers, diamonds, Trees of Life, Eyes of God and fertility designs. Each outfit can have as many as 30,000 buttons on it and can weigh as much as 30 kilograms or more. Today around 30 Pearly families continue the tradition to raise money for charity. A parade of real-life Pearly Kings and Queens was featured at the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony.

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