What Is A Horse-Face Skirt?

In China, this Dior skirt is considered to be one, and not many are delighted that the French house called the silhouette its “hallmark”

Dior mid-length pleated skirt. Photo: Dior

In hanfu (汉服) or traditional Han Chinese dress, there is a skirt with two pleated sides and a flat front (and rear) panel known as ma mian qun (马面裙) or horse-face skirt. Worn since the Song dynasty (宋朝, 10th century) through the Qing dynasty (清朝, 1644—1911), even the Republic era, the skirt is characterised by side panels that are pleated (褶 or zhe), and the front and back that are not. This season, Dior offers a similar “mid-length pleated skirt”, as it is called. Nothing terribly wrong with that accept that the French house describes it on their website as “a hallmark Dior silhouette”. It was this description that ticked Chinese Netizens off this past week when they saw the skirt online (it is now removed from the Dior Chinese website). So similar it was to what the Chinese know as ma mian qun that many spoke up in disapproval, even the online Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. “The so-called Dior silhouette is very similar to the Chinese horse-face skirt,” it opined somewhat angrily. “When many details are the same, why is it shamelessly called a ‘new design’ and ‘hallmark Dior silhouette’?”

It is not known if the Dior skirt was indeed based on the ma mian qun or just inspired by it. Or, in fact, a take on Sacai’s own interpretation. Maria Grazia Chiuri has rather been into pleated skirts recently, churning out many versions of them for the house’s autumn/winter 2022 season. Some of the skirts are schoolgirlishly short, some are hipster-style asymmetric. Regardless, they are very much a part of Ms Chiuri’s re-imagining of what constitutes modern prettiness and what might be a badge of present-day feminism. On their website, the “mid-length pleated skirt” is recommended to go with a T-shirt that reads on the chest “Femininity, the trap”. Dior was apparently contacted by local Chinese media for comment regarding the former’s ma mian qun lookalike, but has yet offered a statement.

A Chinese full-length ma mian qun or horse-face skirt. Photo: 百科

The horse-face skirt, also known as the horse-face pleated skirt (马面褶裙 ma mian zhe qun) is not named after any equine face. If there is anything related to horses, it is in the openings of the four-panel (四裙门 si qun men), apron-like skirt in the front and the rear that facilitate the mounting and dismounting of horses (or, as one report suggests, donkeys), making riding easier. Its popularity through the many years could, therefore, be attributed to its functionality. The reference to horse faces could be due to the flatness of the front panel (usually unadorned too) of the skirt, which the Chinese called ma mian (马面) or horse face. The first use of the phrase is believed to be in the publication History of the Ming Palace (明宫史) by the Ming Dynasty eunuch Liu Ruoyu (刘若愚), although horse-face skirts date back to the Song.

With the rise in the popularity of hanfu in China and an increasing suspicion of Western brands (after so many created communication materials that purportedly put Chinese people in unflattering light. This would be Dior’s second misstep in China after last year’s photo that “smeared Asian women”) taking advantage of their culture, it is not surprising that Chinese consumers are becoming a tad sensitive when it comes to how their culture is represented or, worse, “appropriated”. The similarity of Dior’s skirt to ma mian qun is probably coincidental, rather than a deliberate attempt at seizing a silhouette for themselves. But we do live in sensitive times, and brands would serve themselves better by refraining from potentially problematic expressions such as “hallmark”. Dior would want to listen to public opinion and not wish the Chinese to think that the maison, in not acknowledging its skirt’s resemblance to one of the Chinese’s own, is—keeping to bodily parts—胸无点墨 (siong wu dian mo) or chest without a dot of ink (literally). In other words, culturally bereft.