Unlike most historians, I am not much of a collector. When I finish a project, I get rid of the research materials (finding a good home for them, of course.) I purge my fabric stock and don’t save sewing patterns from unsuccessful efforts. I aim for a trimmed down life.
There is one big exception to this rule, though—buttons. I buy them on ebay, keep an eye out for them at flea markets, and search for buttons stores wherever I travel. My stash includes buttons from Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and England. Friends know about my obsession and Sally, thrifter extraordinaire, has even found me buttons made of reindeer horn.
I buy buttons without much thought about whether or not I will ever use them, but I believe that everything is nicer when it gets used. That’s why I was amazed and intrigued by the London tradition of pearly kings and queens, which I came across in the Museum of London this past summer. On display was a black wool suit covered from top to bottom with mother of pearl buttons. What a way to wear your stash!
According to the Pearly Society’s website, the tradition began in late nineteenth century London with a young man who decided to cover his clothing with pearl buttons and devote himself to charity work. Women took to the custom later. Today, boroughs of London have pearly kings and queens, and sometimes princes and princesses, to represent them. Although most of the participants are older, there are also young people eager to continue the tradition.
My stash includes many mother of pearl buttons. Perhaps I should take this on as a sewing challenge. The end result probably won’t be as stunning as this Molyneux jacket from the 1940s, inspired by Pearly Kings and Queens, but I could give it a try.