The chaise lounge, a form of elongated chair that makes lying down on it possible, was first used in 16th century France. While it may seem pretty straight forward, it has a surprising history that you will want to read about!
This single piece of furniture has ties to psychology, art history, and society that make it an extremely interesting and iconic part of the history of furniture. It developed in relationship to a particular upper class luxury of having leisure time to lounge during the day, and requiring a piece of furniture to do so on that wasn’t the bed. While the connotations around gender fluctuated over time, the class connotations never did. The structure, designed for lounging, never became a staple of a middle class household.
From excavations of ancient Egyptian tombs, archaeologists suspect that the long chairs found there are the earliest historical examples of the origins of the chaise longue, dating back to around 3000BC. For the affluent, the frame would be constructed in wood and feature an ivory or ebony veneer. There is also evidence of it existing in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Reclining in a long chair whilst dining or socialising was normal practice for the Greeks during 8th century BC. In Ancient Greece, the chair was known as a kline or klinai. The kline would be draped in layers of fabrics and have cushions propped up against the headrest. They were popular for Greek symposiums; social gatherings where men would drink and converse amongst each other in rows of these kline couches against three walls facing the door.
For the purpose of this article, however, we will focus on the modern iterations of this piece of furniture. The chaise longue (pronounced “shayz long”, the literal English translation from French for which is “long chair”) has in recent decades become more popularly known and pronounced as chaise lounge in English-speaking countries. The modern chaise longue was first popularised during the 16th century in France. They were created by French furniture craftsmen for the rich to rest without the need to retire to the bedroom. It was during the Rococo period that the chaise longue became the symbol of social status and only the rarest and most expensive materials were used in their construction. Today, the chaise longue is seen as a luxury item for the modern home. They are often used to complement a home’s décor such as living or reading rooms, or as a stylish boudoir chair for bedroom seating. During the 1800s, the chaise longue developed more feminine connotations as a decadent throne for women to rest during the day without having to go to their bedroom. It was during the French Rococo period that the chaise longue became a symbol of social status and were ornately crafted from only the rarest and most expensive of materials.
Types of Chaise Lounges
- Duchesse brisée (Broken duchess in French): this word is used when the chaise longue is divided in two parts: the chair and a long footstool, or two chairs with a stool in between them. The origin of the name is unknown.
- Récamier: a récamier has two raised ends, and nothing on the long sides. It is sometimes associated with French Empire (neo-classical) style. It is named after French society hostess Madame Récamier (1777–1849), who posed elegantly on a couch of this kind for a portrait, painted in 1800 by Jacques-Louis David. The shape of the récamier is similar to a traditional lit bateau (boat bed) but made for the drawing room, not the bedroom.
- Méridienne:You’re probably most familiar with the méridienne style of chaise longue. a méridienne has a high head-rest, and a lower foot-rest, joined by a sloping piece. Whether or not they have anything at the foot end, méridiennes are asymmetrical day-beds. They were popular in the grand houses of France in the early 19th century. Its name is from its typical use: rest in the middle of the day, when the sun is near the meridian.
The chaise longue has traditionally been associated with psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud initiated the use of the chaise longue for this purpose, with the idea being that the patient would recline on a couch, with the analyst seated beyond the head of the couch, so that the client would not see the analyst. Reclining and not having to face the analyst was thought to be disinhibiting and to encourage free association. At the time Freud began to use the chaise longue, it was considered daring in Vienna to recline on a chaise in the presence of non-intimates. Freud’s own chaise longue, given to him by a patient, may be seen today at the Freud Museum in London.
Today, some psychoanalysts continue to invite clients to recline on couches in their offices during psychotherapy, and may use chaises longues rather than more conventional styles of couch out of tradition. The chaise longue is commonly used as visual shorthand to suggest a generic psychotherapist’s office in cartoons and other works. As far as I know, there are no research studies using the experimental method that explore whether or not the use of the couch facilitates the process or outcome of psychoanalysis, although many analysts and patients will tell you from their personal experience that they believe it does. If you’re looking for a thorough discussion of the topic, Ahron Friedberg and Louis Linn wrote a very interesting paper, “The Couch as Icon” (Psychoanalytic Review, February 2012), in which they reviewed over 400 articles from the psychoanalytic literature (clinical and theoretical) about the use of the couch. Personally, despite having seen a handful of therapists over the years, I have never had one who employed the lounge chair.
In the Victorian Era, the chaise lounge chairs came into fashion as a respite for tightly corseted ladies who needed to take a breather. These “fainting couches” featured a back with one high, curved arm — a perfect backdrop for a dainty arm as the lady in question wilted from the heat. There’s an episode of “Mad Men” in which Betty Draper hauls home a sumptuous brocade upholstered chaise longue because she felt “overwhelmed.” While it may have been a bit out of date for the mid-to-late-1960s, many formal parlors still featured some form of the chaise.
Sanitariums for recuperating tuberculosis patients in the Swiss Alps featured chaise lounges that resembled a hospital bed/chaise cross. The connotation, while initially masculine, became entirely feminine, and associated with weakness and illness. It, therefore, was a blend of meanings, both connoting high class and an access to leisure time, as well as the feminine “constitution”. The legacy of the chaise lounge in gendered understandings of health and mental health continues. A long legacy of prescriptive and sexist science remains at the foundation of psychiatric medical treatment for women. From the first diagnosis of hysteria to the present-day disparities in mental health treatment, the tradition of medicating women’s emotions has held constant. Within this context, the line between empirical treatment and medicating the lived experiences of women grows dangerously thin. Treatment of psychiatric symptoms in women (by mostly men, until a few decades ago) has always been connected to ideas about sexuality and domesticity. Whether “over-sexed,” “repressed,” too attentive to their children, or too withdrawn, psychiatric diagnoses often centered on women’s perceived domestic failures. The chaise lounge was part of a system of treating women’s dissatisfaction and reasonable responses to a unequal society as a mental illness, as well as catering to a view of women as fundamentally weaker than men.
Even in the Victorian times, however, women were using the Chaise Lounge in writing as a tool for exploring other ideas. In the novel The Victorian Chaise Longue, by Margharita Laski, the charming and childish wife of a successful lawyer falls asleep one afternoon on her Victorian chaise longue, recently purchased in an antique shop, and awakes in the fetid atmosphere of an ugly, over-furnished room she has never seen before. This is the story of a trip backward in time in which a nostalgia for the quaint turns into a hideous nightmare. The book was published in 1953, and I discovered it at a small press shop in London. The novel, with an invalided young woman as the protagonist, plays on the fears of the unknown, and takes a terrifying twist to the trope of the weak woman in her Chaise Lounge.
The Modern Chaise Lounge
From the late 1920s and bleeding into the 1960s — a la Betty Draper’s era — chaise lounges fit the bill as a “form meets function” piece. Famous architects and designers fiddled with the chair’s design, keeping the chaise at the forefront of the prefabrication revolution. In the 1930s, the chaise longue moved from the psychoanalyst’s office to the silver screen. Any leading lady worth her salt — Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson — draped herself seductively across one for photos and film shoots, generally clothed in a low-cut, spaghetti-strap satin nightgown. Today, it remains a staple of photo shoots for movie stars, fashion models, and even the occasional business executive looking to infuse femininity into her image.
In 1928, famed architect Le Corbusier collaborated with fellow Bauhaus cohorts to create a sleek, metal-framed chaise that offered the sitter unparalleled flexibility. A user could tilt the frame either to raise up the head and lower the feet or vice versa. Charles and Ray Eames, the famous designer duo known for their eponymous molded chairs, created distinct Fiberglass shell chaise lounges with tubular steel legs—a look that really embodies that distinct mid-century modern style. It is not very common to see chaise lounges in homes these days, but may be something you see in an expensive hotel room. While it may seem to have outdated function, there are many ways it can be used now. The chaise lounge can make for the perfect reading nook, with a standing lamp positioned right beside it.
While, like most pieces of furniture, the Chaise Lounge may appear merely a blend of couch and a chair, there is a lot more to its function than meets the eye. The history reveals the fascinating relationship between interior design, and the social order of certain periods. We can look back and critique the function of a fainting chair as ridiculous and extremely outdated, but the legacy of these ideologies follows us into the present.