It’s there in the front display, tucked behind a shiny glass window. Betty Draper peers in as her companion tells her it’s just what she needs—a Victorian fainting couch for women who “feel overwhelmed.”
Cut to end of the “Mad Men” episode, and Don Draper strides into the living room, only to find Betty draped across the chaise—a large, bulkily upholstered piece that quite obviously doesn’t fit in with the room’s otherwise sleek decor.
French for “long chair,” chances are good you’ve mispronounced the word “chaise longue” at least once in your life (“Shez Long” is the correct way to pronounce it, by the way). And though the accurate spelling is “chaise longue,” it’s more commonly spelled “chaise lounge.”
Which make sense, really, the spelling, as that’s exactly the purpose of the piece.
Chaise Longue Roots
There have been plenty amalgamations of the chaise—but they all serve the same function, and it has a long, storied place in history.
In ancient Egypt, the chaise was the most important piece of furniture, providing an in-between daybed/chair that served as a place of repose in the arid climate. Early Egyptian chaise examples, which come from tombs dating back to 3100 BC, feature built-in wood or stone headrests with the long piece of the chair slanting slightly for increased comfort. Chaises also had their place in elaborate burial rituals.
“Klines” were popular in ancient Greece—their word for chaise longue. An integral fixture at large parties, the chaise often took the place of a regular chair at the table, allowing guests to recline while reaching for food.
The Romans used the chaise in similar manner, during both banquets, and they even slept on them at night.
The Chinese, however, adopted the chaise around the Ming Dynasty in 1368, placing them squarely in gardens so the user could relax surrounded by nature and fresh air. (Though it should be noted that the chair also became a fixture in opium dens.)
While used for queens and their ladies in waiting in France, the fainting couch variety of a chaise—a back and one high arm—originated in the Victorian era, given the heavy costume of the day coupled with restrictive corsets.
The chaise, however, maintained its popularity as a parlor fixture, often blending luxury with comfort—rich mahogany features upholstered with sumptuous brocade fabrics.
In the 20th century, as outdoor living and outdoor furniture rose in popularity, the chaise longue came along for the ride. The chair can be found everywhere from pool-side and dockside to cruise ships, on back patios, and gracing porches and terraces around the world.
The modern-day outdoor chaise often features two low arms, a contoured wooden seat, and a slightly reclined back for maximum comfort. It can be made from composite wood, aluminium or metal, or natural woods such as cedar, teak and pine. While they’re comfortable enough to stand alone, plenty of manufacturers—most notably Sunbrella, for its weather resistance—create chaise cushions for maximum relaxation in this lounge chair.
What’s the Difference?
Chaise. Divan. Daybed. Settee. Here’s a quick terminology lesson.
Settee: Smaller profile sofa with two arms and a back. Those older sofas your grandmother or great grandmother kept in the formal living room are likely settees.
Daybed: A piece that uses a twin-size mattress and features a back and two raised ends. It can be used both as a bed and a sofa.
Recamier: An upholstered bench with two ends—often scrolled—and no back.
Divan: A tufted seat usually on a low frame. Sort of a sofa version of a daybed.
And, of course, chaise: Think chair plus ottoman fused together.
Though a Victorian fainting couch may not be very practical today (though nor was it in the 1960s “Mad Men” era), one thing’s clear: The chaise remains a perfect chair to sit, to relax, to stay awhile.