Japan has a very rich textile history, a major focus of interest and artistic expression being the kimono. Meaning 'the thing worn', the term kimono was first adopted in the mid-19th century. Prior to that the garment was known as a kosode, which means 'small sleeve', a reference to the opening at the wrist. Originally worn by commoners, or as an undergarment by the aristocracy, from the 16th century the kosode, or kimono, had become the principal item of dress for all classes and both sexes. It is still today an enduring symbol of traditional Japanese culture.
Kimono are simple, straight-seamed garments. They are worn wrapped left side over right and secured with a sash called an obi. The length of the garment can be altered for height by drawing up excess fabric under the obi, while other adjustments can be made to suit the wearer. By pulling back the collar, for example, the nape of a woman's neck can be more sensuously revealed. The wrap style allows for ease of movement, particularly in a culture where many activities are performed while seated on the floor. The kimono is also well-suited to Japan's climate. Unlined kimono are worn in the humid summers while in winter warmth is provided by lined kimono worn in many layers.
In kimono it is the pattern on the surface, rather than the cut of the garment, that is significant. Indications of social status, personal identity and cultural sensitivity are expressed through colour and decoration.
The choice of obi and accessories, such as combs and pins worn in the hair, are also important. Only the elite regularly wore luxurious kimono; the majority of people would only have donned silk garments on special occasions and were sometimes forbidden to do so all together.
The kimono worn by women, particularly the young, were the most richly decorated and it is generally these that survive in collections like that of the V&A. Such kimono were the designer clothes of their day.