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.
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.
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.