The kimono was worn by men and women of all social classes in Japan and was frequently adorned with the most intricate and beautiful designs.
The kimono is one of the most famous expressions of Japanese culture. The origins of the garment go back more than a thousand years, but it took its present form only in the 18th century.
Essentially it is an ankle-length gown with wide sleeves; it has no button or other ties but is secured at the waist with a sash called an obi.
As the kimono was minimally tailored, designed to cover the body rather than flatter or reveal it shape, fashions in Japanese dress were based on the decoration of the kimono rather than on the way it was cut.
Emperor and peasant, man and woman, all wore the same fundamental costume, but there were many variations in fabric and decoration.
Peasant kimonos were normally of indigo dyed hemp or cotton with simple striped or printed patterns.
At the other end of the social scale, those belonging to the court were often in heavy weight fabrics, such as silk brocade, patterned on the loom.
In between came the kimonos of the well-to-do, which were usually of softer silks with elaborate patterns.
Even the everyday garments look marvellously sumptuous and exotic to the Western eye, but the most gorgeous kimonos of all were probably those used in the traditional Japanese Noh plays.
They are quite unlike Western drama highly stylized and unrealistic. The actors often wore masks and moved in a ritualistic way with low, deliberate actions on stages with little scenery.
To create a feeling of ritual and mystery, the actors wore fantastic kimonos, often specially designed for a particular part.
On the whole they were made from heavy stiff silks, which helped to give the impression of angular movement, and had exotic designs often worked in gilt thread or colourful brocade.
The most popular method for decorating folk textiles was called kasuri. Before weaving, the yarns were tied at certain points and then dyed so that when they were untied they were parti-coloured.
When the actual fabric was woven, the undyed areas of the yarns created a simple pattern, with a streaky or watered effect. The finishing processes in the decoration of the kimono were embroidery and applique'.
Often a printed pattern was over embroidered; sometimes the design was outlined in gilt thread, or a complementary pattern was worked over in coloured silks.
KIMONOS COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The Japanese rightly considered kimonos to be works of art in their own right and often used them to hang over screens and decorate their rooms.
Western collectors have followed suit. Not only can they be worn, perhaps as a dressing gown, but they can also be hung on a wall (they are particularly popular in bedrooms) and admired for their beauty of colour and pattern and texture.
Apart from the kimono itself, the sash or or obi and the under-robes are also colourful and collectable. During the Edo period in the 17th century the obi was just a cord or thin ribbon, but by the 19th century it had become almost as important as the kimono itself.
It was now a much wider and more decorative feature, and the width, material and way of tying it were all important fashion statements.
The under-robes were visible at the neck and sleeves and were often as colourful as the outer robe. When dressing, the wearer would be careful to put on under-robes that complemented the outer kimono.
The court lady might wear as many as five outer kimonos at one time under which she would probably wear a fan-shaped train attached to a belt round her waist and two white silk or crepe under-kimonos.
All types of kimono consisted of several lengths of material lightly sewn together, so that they could easily be unpicked for washing.
If you buy one that looks as if it could be improved with cleaning, you should take it to a specialist as old and delicate fabrics should not be subjected to normal cleaning processes - the effects could be ruinous for the garment.
Kimonos can be bought at specialist dealers, but so many have been brought back from Japan since the country was opened up to the West in the 1800s, there is a chance of finding one at any outlet where antiques are sold.
Before buying you should check carefully for signs of damage as restoration can be expensive and something of a risk.