China’s Hidden Century

Sometimes a museum exhibition comes around that has you as excited as buying concert tickets. A museum exhibition that is right up your street, combining different interests and bringing them together under one roof. The British Museum’s current ‘China’s Hidden Century’(晚清百态) exhibition puts the spotlight on the innovation of 19th Century China, including the commercial links between China and the United Kingdom.

We visited the exhibition recently and was inspired by the silk robes of Empress Dowager Cixi, a focal point of the exhibition.

China’s Hidden Century

The exhibition is supported by Citi and the Huo Family Foundation and designed to give you a glimpse into the life of 19th Century China through art, fashion, newspapers, furniture, and everyday items. The purpose of the exhibition is to give the public a new understanding of late imperial China.

You’ll get a chance to be up close and personal with everyday items like an ancestor portrait of a bannerman, a beautifully painted luxury fan, and a snuff bottle with the image of Li Hongzhang.

The 19th century marks a transition period for China as the silk road gave way to more modern methods of trade between East and West. It was also the period when porcelain became a major export for China, with blue-and-white Chinese porcelain becoming collectibles amongst the wealthy in Britain and America.

The revolutionary 19th century was a time of creativity in China, showcased through a pearl-encrusted snuff bottle, lotus shoes, and straw rain cape on display in the exhibition.

Empress Dowager Cixi’s Robe

One of the most talked about pieces in the exhibition is the clothing worn by Empress Dowager Cixi. The stand-out piece is her silk robe, the perfect muse for future SKYLENCE designs. Cixi acted as the de-facto ruler of China from 1861 to 1908 as the consort of the Xianfeng Emperor, widowed in her 20s. She’s often recognisable in art by wearing a distinctive headdress.

The silk robe is on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, giving you a rare chance to get up close with this piece of history on this side of the Atlantic. It’s an informal outer gown that incorporates motifs from the Japanese Meji-period of 1868 to 1912 and shows how little the kimono silhouette has evolved over time. Look out for the swooping phoenix with a peacock tail on the robe.

Empress Dowager Cixi’s fashion is significant to the history of China as she benefited from the expansion of new colours of European aniline dyes, showing in the bright hues of her robes. Empress Cixi is believed to have changed outfits around 10 times a day with hundreds of casual robes, just like the one in this exhibition.

The Nissen Richards Studio was involved in bringing the exhibition to life and teamed up with the London College of Fashion to design a series of bespoke costumes inspired by the remarkable individuals featured in it. You can read about the designs, including one inspired by Dowager Empress Cixi, here.

China’s Hidden Century runs at the British Museum until the 8th of October 2023. You can book tickets directly through the museum website.

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