Żywotek avaIn some regions of Poland, women wear a charming bodice called “żywotek” as a part of their traditional attire. This item serves as a corset and supports the bust. At the same time, a żywotek can be extremely decorative and festive. Some people consider the design of this folk vest to be of Ottoman origin because it is very similar to a “jelek”, an Ottoman traditional waistcoat. But many Slavic countries have bodices of the same look in their folk costumes.

A żywotek is a decorative bodice worn in Poland. Mostly, it is made from black or dark velvet (black, red, navy blue, and green vests are really popular) and adorned with beautiful gold or silver embroidery. A żywotek is rather stiff, tight-fitting, and laced at the front, so it supports the bust effectively. But unlike modern bras, it is worn on top of the blouse for everybody to see and is a very decorative item.

For Slavic countries, including Poland, it is a typical thing for women to wear some kind of a vest, bodice, or another corset-like garment on top of a shirt. There are many different shapes and designs of these bodices, but a żywotek is comparatively small and fitting. It supports the breasts from underneath rather than covering the whole chest and stomach, like many other vests do.

Interesting thing is, they say, a żywotek used to be a decorative low 7cm-wide belt when it first appeared. And with time, it evolved into an ornate small bodice with shoulder straps.

Sometimes, żywotek vests are worn as a separate item of clothes, or it can also be sewn to the skirt to form a one-piece dress. But even when the vest and skirt are separate items, they should match.

The most typical shape of a żywotek has a rectangular neckline. Of course, the designs of this charming garment are diverse, but this shape is the most common. By the way, the front part of a żywotek is called “przedniczki” and the back part “oplecek”.


Żywotek – stunning folk bodice in Poland. Slavic analogue of corset
Folk singers in traditional outfits from Silesia region of Poland. Photo from Wikipedia.org, photographer – Jan Mehlich


Usually, a żywotek is a festive piece of clothing worn as a part of a national costume. So, it can be really decorative and pretty. Practically always, it is decorated with embroidery, and the amount of needlework shows off the wealth and status of the owner. In the past, bodices with gold or silver metallic thread were used by wealthier females and more affordable silk floss embroidery could be seen on peasant women’s żywotek vests. Also, in most cases, gold embroidery was for red velvet and silver embroidery for black velvet – although, it wasn’t a strict rule.

Embroidery wasn’t the only embellishment for żywotek bodices. Women often added beads, sequins, pearls, gold tape, decorative brooches, clasps, and eyelets, and various other adornments. A żywotek was often laced with a chain to make it look even more ornate. Some costly vests looked striking, being so richly decorated.

Today, many Polish ladies continue to wear a żywotek with their folk attire. And modern folk dancers often use this garment because it looks wonderful on the stage. And you can see the same embroidery motifs on modern vests as were on authentic traditional bodices. For example, 3 bouquets, 2 flowers, and garlands are still the most common patterns.

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