Photography session.

Fashion and photography – bringing 19th-century China to life

Publication date: 18 May 2023

The remarkable individuals of 19th-century China are brought to life by designs from London College of Fashion students and photography from Nissen Richards Studio.

Nissen Richards Studio are both exhibition and graphic designers for the Citi exhibition China’s hidden century, which reveals the resilience and creativity of the Chinese people in war-torn and revolutionary 'hidden' 19th century – which saw the end of 2,000 years of dynastic rule. 

Tasked with pulling out the human stories in the exhibition, the Nissen Richards Studio team came up with the idea of a collaboration with London College of Fashion students to design a series of bespoke costumes. These costumes were then photographed with experimental photography techniques, in order to illustrate key characters explored within the show, so that visitors feel like they are 'meeting' real people – read on to discover how these characters were brought to life.  

An introduction from Pippa Nissen, Director at Nissen Richards Studio

Throughout our designs for the exhibition, we tried to pull out human stories and focus on people in order to bring the visitors' experience to life. We worked with the Museum's curators and interpretation team to find ways to use individual showcases of objects that related to specific individuals. In the end, we selected one key person to illustrate each theme of the exhibition: a bannerman, Ren Xiong, Dowager Empress Cixi, Lady Li, Mouqua and an Unknown Woman. We then created seven individual showcases for models of these figures, at the size of a real person. 

We felt that it was important to feature people rather than objects to help create a sense of theatre, so they became like actors, appearing on stage to represent these characters from history. The objects we had to describe people's stories varied so much – from illustrations to books and smaller objects – though with very few available photographs, of course, due to the time period covered. We felt extra help was needed to bring these figures to life and so we came up with the idea of representing people through their shadows. That way, we could describe people, but could also leave details to the viewers’ imaginations. Banners were then designed to hang at the side of each showcase with the shadow characters displayed on these.

Draft design of the Unknown woman costume.
Draft design of the Unknown woman costume.

We wanted to make the shadow depictions feel as real as possible, which meant the exact details of the characters needed to be specific and feel true. We formed a collaboration with colleagues from the London College of Fashion’s MA Costume Design for Performance class in order to design the bespoke costumes, which, together with experimental photography techniques, would create characters that would feel as if visitors were 'meeting' them in the exhibition.  

This turned out to be an extremely creative process, thanks to the dedication and skill of the tutors and students from the London College of Fashion. We selected students via a competitive process, then worked with them to find ways to express the characters from the objects in a creative way. This was achieved partly through silhouette, but also through the use of translucent materials and movements using different light sources.

Workshop at the Museum with the students about initial ideas.
Workshop at the Museum with the students about initial ideas. 

After a series of workshops, including with costume and theatre designer Tim Yip, the team settled on using silhouettes. A creative workshop in our studio followed, experimenting with materials, shadows and lighting, until we felt that we had the right methodology for the final shoot. On that day, each student was paired with a model, then the students dressed the models and worked with them to create poses that would describe a character via a moment or a stance, thereby becoming more like a theatrical representation.  

We hope that, as visitors walk through the exhibition, it will be as if the characters are jumping out of the objects and helping to create an emotional connection with their stories.

Unknown palace woman

The 'Unknown palace woman' character was inspired by a beautiful painted image (featured within the exhibition) on silk of a young woman, dressed in a dusky pink robe, white scarf and elaborate hair ornaments. An untitled portrait, her costume suggests that she was part of the imperial court. On formal occasions, Manchu women wore three earrings in each earlobe as a marker of their ethnicity. 

Unknown woman quote

I used thick pink satin to make the unknown woman's chenyi, and a thinner white satin for the scarf. A great challenge is how to make the hair accessories and jewellery, which was very fine and used a lot of specialised skills, such as the Kingfisher craft. I decided to use some sustainable fabrics to be the main material of hair accessories, such as paper organdy which is easy to shape and paint. I also used some fine gold wire, pearls and plastic beads to recreate the accessories. 

Jialin Li, LCF student

Dowager Empress Cixi

Cixi was the de-facto ruler of China from 1861 to 1908. She was a consort of the Xianfeng emperor. Widowed in her 20s, her son became the Tongzhi emperor, and later her nephew ruled as the Guangxu emperor. Her shadow is distinguished by her distinctive headdress.

– Maria Evstyukhina, LCF student

To represent the presence of this influential and powerful woman but also show her as a person and not just a name in history, I chose transparent crispy fabric that could cover the body as a cape but also keep Cixi’s real body visible. When creating an ornament for the dress, I used referenced photos of Cixi in which she wears clothing with a sign that translates as ‘longevity’. 

Maria Evstyukhina, LCF student

The bannerman

Bannermen were elite hereditary soldiers who commanded divisions called the Eight Banners, identified by eight coloured flags. They were mostly Manchus, Mongols and some Chinese whose ancestors had fought against the Ming dynasty in 1644. We took inspiration from an image (featured within the exhibition) of an unknown bannerman in ceremonial armour, helmet and boots. 

Ren Xiong

This shadow is based on an extraordinary self-portrait by the artist  Ren Xiong which he created in 1851. It is a life-size painting showing a young man standing in jagged folds of costume which fall away from his right shoulder. The painting is inscribed with an inscription which begins: 'With the world in turmoil, what lies ahead of me?'. 

Lady Li

Lady Li is a housewife from the Guangzhou area whose husband was a successful business man. Little is known of her life, but we do know she was a Buddhist and kept to a strict vegetarian diet and brought up her children to study well. In the painting that inspired the shadow (featured within the exhibition) she wears a blue robe which has a pattern of golden flowers and wears jade earrings and a jade brooch. 

Lady Li student

The materials used were chosen to replicate the character as closely as possible, and I used satin fabrics of the same color and texture instead of silk for the costumes. For the brilliant green earrings, the highlight of Lady Li's entire look, I kneaded them from ceramic and then colored them to recreate the texture of the pearls and jade as much as possible. Chinese classical clothes are cut in a very flat way, so it was a big challenge for me to control the proportions and restore them, but the pattern-making process was still very interesting.

Min Liang, LFC student


Mouqua’s shadow shows a self-assured businessman in the prime of his life. In the portrait that inspired the shadow (featured within the exhibition) he is dressed in the long loose robe, rank badge and bead necklace of an official. Mouqua was head of the official trade organisation in Guangzhou that negotiated business deals with foreigners. Unusually for the time he spoke English.

Visit the exhibition

Get up close to the costumes and astonishing photography at this stunning exhibition and discover the stories of remarkable individuals.   

Book your exhibition ticket for the Citi exhibition China's hidden century, open until 8 October.

Purchase the exhibition catalogue.

Lead supporter Citi.

Additional supporter The Huo Family Foundation. 

This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [Grant Number AH/T001895/1].