Мушки Јелеци – Men’s Vests of Central Serbia

Throughout their history, Slavic men’s costumes invariably have included some sort of vest or sleeveless upper garment. It is known among Eastern, Western and Southern Slavs, and the Serbs (belonging to the Southern Slavic branch) are certainly no exception. The vest, or jelek, has changed over the centuries, influenced by the cultures that shaped our history.

The Slavic words for vest also reflect the diversity of cultural influences each group encountered. The oldest terminology for vests in Serbian is the word prsluk, from prsa (chest, or torso) + the turkish suffix luk (Turkish lik) designating an object of use, or place or state. So, prsluk = garment you use or wear on your torso, roughly.  The Slovenian language has retained what is likely the most ancient word for vest: telovnik. (from telo – body) Old Slavic texts use this word, as well as prsnik, prsnjak, pršnjak, with the same meaning of ‘garment worn on the upper body’. The most familiar Serbian word for a vest is the turkism jelek, a direct loan word (Turkish yelek). This word appears among all of the Ottoman Slavs, as jelek, elek, eleche. Interestingly, in Greek this word became yileko (γιλεκο), which became the French gilet which in turn became the Russian/Ukrainian zhilet. The Russian empire was notoriously francophile, and copied French styles and trends voraciously. Among the western Slavs, who were in a Germanic sphere of influence, we see the latin-root vesta in Czech/Slovak (from German Weste); compare this to the directly Latin word vesta in Romanian, too(L. garment). Standing out is the Belarusian/Polish kamizelka, a derivative of the Latin camisa (cf. French chemise) with the Slavic diminutive suffix –elka.

For many centuries Slavs produced their own clothing at home, using the fibres available to them. The material of choice for vests was sometimes leather or untanned animal skins, fleeces; the other main material was wool cloth, either felted by rolling or woven on a loom. The heavy wool material was called sukno (the oldest name, from sukati, to twist – i.e. to spin the wool into yarn), or čoja (of Persian-Turkish origin, čoha). Čoja came to be also called šajak (fine or soft čoja) and aba (heavy or rough čoja) during the Ottoman centuries, and aba gave its name to the craftsmen who produced the material and the tailors who made vests and other wool garments. These abadžije worked almost exclusively in wool cloth decorated with wool or silk thread and braid. Terzije were craftsmen who worked in finer materials, and generally did not produce the vests worn by Serbian peasants.

sumadija nosnja_1
Basic Šumadija style jelek.

In central Serbia, which is mainly covered by the Morava ethnocultural zone, men’s vests all have essentially the same cut and style. They are all sleeveless and worn open; buttons were rare and if present, decorative. (a buttoning vest only entered from Western and Central European fashions in the 20th century, and in Serbian is called by the French loan word žilet). Ornamentation was initially limited to the borders, collar, and arm openings, serving not only a decorative but a practical purpose by reinforcing these areas to prevent wear and tear.

sumadija nosnja_2
General pattern for a jelek or fermen from Šumadija region. All measurements are in centimetres. (Both this illustration and the one above it are from Narodna Nošnja Šumadije, Mirjana Prošić-Dvornić, 1989)

Slide1I have two vests in my collection that have retained this very simple design. They come from a village called Gornje Vlase, between Leskovac and Niš, in southeastern Serbia. They are identical, but the one shown below is in better condition. Interestingly, these villages north of Leskovac show a very different type of vest from those south of that city. The vests in my collection are sewn from brown aba, with a dark brown braid trim. The braid divides the vest into sections (called pole in Serbian) which we see used in later, more heavily ornamented vests to delineate variations in decorative pattern. They follow, and reinforce, seams between sewn panels, too. This vest conforms to an archaic styling by keeping a fairly even and simple cut. Later developments led to the fermen or jelek having a slight tapering toward the waist, and sometimes narrower front panels, meant to keep the vest more widely open in order to show embroidery on a shirt or anterija (long sleeved jacket worn under the jelek during winter or festive occasions).

Jelek vest from Gornje Vlase, between Leskovac and Niš. Personal collection, A.S. Acquired from a collector in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2011.

Over time, the ornamentation of vests became more and more elaborate. This vest from the area of Užice in western Serbia is also made of a darker brown čoja, with somewhat more elaborate decoration in the same limited areas.

Užice jelek, personal collection A.S. Acquired in Serbia, 1994.

Another vest, this time from Valjevo in western Serbia, is made from finer blue šajak, and illustrates a similar evolution of decorative style as the previous one: more detail, more elaborate, but controlled, balanced, elegant. Vests made of blue cloth were also referred to as a fermen, another turkism. Vests made of finer materials, or worn for festive occasions, were often called fermeni (pl) to distinguish them from the everyday prsluk or jelek. This one was a gift of my kum Boris, whose family had settled in that area.

Fermen style vest from Valjevo. Personal collection, A.S., Gift of Boris Šakić, 1991.

The vest I have owned the longest is a beautiful green čoja vest from the village of Kotraža near Guča, also Western Serbia. It came to me in childhood from my godfather (kum) Ljubomir Prtenjak, in 1970. For many years, I wore it as I danced in our local children’s folk dance group, also. It was made for kum Ljubo when he was 17 – “kada se zamomčio” – “when he reached young manhood”. Who made it is, in itself, a particularly interesting story. The abadžija was Aleksandar Ranković, who would later become a high-ranking official in Yugoslavia’s post-war Communist Government. He founded the OZNA and led the UDBA, the Communist Security forces, until he fell out of favour with Tito… for bugging his bedroom. For a communist, he had some pretty clear views on policies that he perceived as anti-Serbian, which divided opinions on him, too. In any case, he made a pretty beautiful jelek.


Details of the Kotraža vest. Notice how the back of the vest is divided into sections like the vest from Gornje Vlase. Personal collection, A.S. Gift of Ljubomir Prtenjak, 1970.

With the turn of the 20th century, the abadžija trade had become more skilled and widespread, taking motifs used usually by the terzije and applying them boldly and liberally to the wool garments they made. Two jeleci (pl.) in my collection are great examples of the artistic heights that the abadžija could reach.

One is from Kraljevo, a town in the heart of Serbia, on the Western Morava river. It is very old, judging from the condition. It came to me with much damage and fraying, and with several moth holes in the wool cloth. I have repaired the edges of the braid trim in order to halt further fraying, and used needle weaving to fill in some of the moth holes. Still, it is an extraordinary jelek. The colour of the čoja cloth (black) and of the trim (a deep wine-maroon) state that this is a pre-WWI vest. It also makes the vest absolutely striking. The vines and curlicues executed by embroidery and applique/couching techniques is lively and shows the typical Levantine ornamental influence of Serbian vests. The čoja is finer than usual, but not as delicate as šajak cloth. I purchased it from an elderly gentlemen living in Kraljevo, originally from the village of Lisice near that town. It belonged to his father when he was a young man. By size, it definitely looks like it was meant for a teenage boy.

Ornate jelek or fermen vest from the village of Lisice, near Kraljevo. Purchased from Miomir Mikanović, 2016. Personal collection, A.S.

The height of the abadžija’s art is seen in another young man’s jelek, this time from vicinity of Kragujevac, the centre of Šumadija region. Like the Kraljevo vest, it is pre-WWI. It is exquisite and opulent, covered in braid to such an extent that its blue šajak cloth is barely visible. It has ornaments quite similar to the Kraljevo and Kotraža vests, but also has some unique geometric panels, visible in the lower sections of the vest.

Vest from the vicinity of Kragujevac, Šumadija region. Personal collection, A.S.


For further reading: 

Narodna nošnja Šumadije, Mirjana Prošić-Dvornić, series Biblioteka Narodne Nošnje Jugoslavije, publ. Kulturno-Prosvjetni Sabor Hrvatske, 1989.