In Albania, waist coats are worn by both men and women as a part of traditional attire. Known as a jelek (pronounced YEH-lehk), women wear them over a long shirt, along with flowing pants, an apron, and scarves. This type of outfit would have been considered everyday attire until the early 20th century, when western-style clothing became dominant.
Although most jeleks are highly decorated, this one is particularly elaborate. It features red velvet almost entirely covered with gold couched embroidery and gold sequins. The decorative buttons, a traditional part of the design but not functional, are wrapped in gold thread and decorated with coral beads. The metallic thread used in the embroidery is made by winding long strips of thin metal around silk thread. The extravagant decorations on this piece elevates it for use during ceremonies and celebrations, perhaps as a part of a wedding ensemble.
This waist coat is currently on display in New at the Lam: Recent Acquisitions. It was collected by Elena Trayan in the early 1900s. Elena was a native of Albania who fled the country during World War I but returned after the war as a Red Cross nurse. The devastation of the war put immense pressure on Albanians. To help them financially, Elena bought antique and heirloom clothing from the families she helped at the clinic. She also did this to preserve the cultural heritage of Albania. She recognized that the intricate embroidery and delicate lace used for ceremonial occasions was in danger of being lost. Many pieces of historical clothing had been destroyed during the war and was no longer being made in traditional ways.