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(Published: 2011-12-12)

The recent recession has had a big impact on Americans’ giving habits, so charities and non-profits have worked hard to make it easier to give. Special apps, mobile payment options, sustaining memberships, marathons and bike rides, yellow bracelets and pink ribbons, not to mention the ubiquitous Salvation Army bell ringers, are all competing for today’s charitable contributions.

I recently discovered a fashionable tradition, rooted in retail, dedicated to raising money for good causes in a totally unique manner. It all started when I ordered a Pearly Queen embellished sweater from one of my favorite stores, AllSaints Spitalfields (

The fact that it was handcrafted and heavily beaded with mother of pearl and primitive metal buttons was the initial hook, but beyond that, the unique beading and interesting motifs suggested something special. Curious, I Googled “Pearly Queen” and learned about the Pearly Kings and Queens, a band of London merchants dating back to 1875. The founder, Henry Croft was an orphan tossed out on the streets at the tender age of 13. His first job was as a street sweeper. He worked hard at his menial task and quickly made friends among his fellow Costermongers.

Costermongers were the original itinerant, often unlicensed London Street Trader families. Known for their vigor, wit and showmanship, they “cried their wares” with panache (think advertising) to attract customers. They were considered a huge annoyance by London’s upper class society, the 1% of that era. At the time, Coster families provided an essential service to London’s poor, selling their wares in small quantities around the streets and alleyways, first from baskets, then from barrows, today’s mall cart predecessors.

The Costermonger’s hard life and hand to mouth existence could easily have made them cynical and hard-hearted. It had the opposite effect on Henry Croft. He eventually prospered, and began to look for ways to help those less fortunate than himself.

To do that, he needed a way to call attention to himself and his causes (think PR). While sweeping the streets, Henry collected pearl buttons that had fallen off the clothes of the well to do Victorians, for whom mother of pearl had become all the rage. He started sewing them onto his cap, and continued sewing until his entire suit was covered in buttons. This became the original “smother suit.” (See photo). Many of the primitive designs are easily recognized--horseshoes for luck, doves for peace, hearts for charity, anchors for hope. Interestingly, it’s the Kings that create the designs and do all of the sewing.

These bold and shiny costumes still help to raise awareness and money for worthwhile causes. Today’s Pearly Kings and Queens raise sums running into the millions of pounds for their many charities. Their work is done in true Cockney spirit. There’s no hint of pity or condescension in their giving. They know that anyone can fall on hard times. What counts, they believe, is making the most of the good times while they last, doing all they can to help others, and having the support of their own kind when the going gets tough.

I’ll think of that as I don my AllSaints Pearly Queen sweater this holiday season. I’ll probably drop a little extra cash into the Salvation Army kettle as I pass, too.

Kings in smother suits

Pearly queen

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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