The Japanese kimono is one of the most instantly recognizable traditional garments in the world. The word kimono literally means "clothes", and until the mid-19th century it was the form of clothing worn by everyone in Japan. This slowly began to change with the importation of suit dresses and other western fashions during the Meiji era.
The kimono has been worn by Japanese men and women for centuries and is considered a cultural symbol of Japan.
It evokes a sense of timeless beauty, elegance, sensuality and an air of mystery in the Western world.
In the 8th century, the earliest forms of the kimono were influenced by traditional Han Chinese clothing, now known in Japan as Hanfu.
As Chinese culture often influenced Japanese fashion, its style of dress was soon adopted and adapted, especially in women's fashion.
The kimono evolved and took on different styles and sub-styles, such as the kosode - a single kimono that used to be worn as underwear.
During the Edo period from 1607 to 1867, many changes were made to the traditional kimono, such as longer sleeves and the obi, a thick belt that ties the layers of the kimono and the fabric around the waist. These became increasingly popular among unmarried women.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan was heavily influenced by foreign cultures. The government encouraged people to adopt Western dress and habits.
Government officials and military personnel were required by law to wear Western dress on official occasions. (This law is no longer in force today).
Ordinary citizens were required to wear kimonos on formal occasions, decorated with the wearer's family crest, which signified his family origin.
Nowadays, Japanese rarely wear kimonos in everyday life, reserving them for occasions such as weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies or other special events such as summer festivals.
The images used on kimonos often have complex layers of meaning. The most popular bird depicted on kimonos is the crane. It is said to live for a thousand years and to inhabit the land of the immortals. It is a symbol of longevity and good fortune.
Certain motifs have been used to indicate virtues or qualities of the wearer, or relate to the season or occasion such as weddings and festivals where it brings good luck to the wearer.
Colours also have strong metaphorical and cultural meanings. Dyes are seen as embodying the spirit of the plants from which they are derived.
It is also believed that any medicinal property is transferred to the coloured substance. For example, blue is derived from indigo, which is used to treat bites and stings, so wearing blue fabric is considered a repellent against snakes and insects.
With the introduction of the concept of the five elements from China to Japan in the 6th century, colours took on a cosmological dimension. Fire, water, earth, wood and metal are associated with certain directions, seasons, virtues and colours.
Black, for example, corresponds to water, the north, winter and wisdom. Colours also have a strong poetic meaning. Purple, for example, is a metaphor for undying love, the symbolism deriving from the fact that gromwell (murasaki), the plant from which the dye is extracted, has very long roots.
Perhaps the most popular colour for kimonos is red, derived from the safflower (benibana). Red represents youthful glamour and allure and is therefore suitable for young women's garments.
The richest source of kimono motifs comes from nature. Flowers such as peonies, wisteria, bush clover and hollyhocks often appear on garments. Many of them, for example cherry blossom, chrysanthemums and maple leaves, have seasonal significance.
Pine, bamboo and plum are collectively known as the Three Friends of Winter (shōchikubai) and are symbols of longevity, endurance and renewal.
The pine is an evergreen tree and lives for many years, the bamboo bends in the wind but never breaks, and the plum is the first tree to flower every year. The plum is especially popular for winter kimonos because it suggests that spring is not far away.
Birds, animals, butterflies and dragonflies also appear on kimonos, along with other motifs from nature, such as water, snow and clouds. Some kimonos depict entire landscapes with mountains and streams.