Recently, celebrity magazines and news channels flashed images of stars arriving on the infamous red carpet to attend the annual Oscars.
These days, a plush crimson strip of flooring is synonymous with Hollywood glitz and glamour. However, the red carpet has an illustrious history that began long before film was even invented.
The red carpet may appear to go for miles and miles, but it’s often not nearly as long as the photographs make it appear. Apparently, the average red carpet is just 10 by 4 feet (about 3 by 1.2 metres).
Red carpet treatment
Getting the “red carpet treatment” means being treated like a VIP, but it’s not Hollywood that gave rise to this expression.
In the 1900s, The New York Central launched the exclusive 20th Century Limited passenger train service, between New York and Chicago. To make passengers feel important, the company marked their way with a ruby-red carpet.
The ancient history of the red carpet
The history of the red carpet appears to go way way back, to 458 BC or even earlier. In his tragedy, Agamemnon, the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, mentions a red carpet. When the King Agamemnon returned from the Trojan war, his wife laid down a “red path” for him to walk on – an honour generally accorded only to the Greek gods. This was enough to arouse Agamemnon’s suspicions.
The red carpet and political power
In Renaissance paintings, kings are often shown to sit on thrones atop crimson carpets. Like purple, the colour red was associated with royalty.
In more modern times, red carpets have retained an association with power and politics, adding pomp and ceremony to various political events. For example, heads of state or other dignitaries may find themselves on red carpets when arriving at banquets or disembarking planes.
Red carpets and celebrities: how it got started
These days, with celebrities like the new royalty, we expect to see the red carpet rolled out at the BAFTAs, the Met Gala Awards and of course the Academy Awards, where photographers and film crews clamour to get their all-important star shots.
In Hollywood’s glamour days, waiting alongside the red carpet was the only way autograph seekers wanting to the signatures of screen sirens like Joan Crawford and Grace Kelly could get lucky. Ironically, few knew the carpet was red then – this was before the days of widespread colour photography.
In the 1970s, with the rise of celebrity and gossip magazines, the celebrity culture we see today began. Now, at awards evenings and fancy fashion events, major brands pay big money to have their signage and product launches placed on the red carpet, for PR exposure when the photos are splashed across media the next day.
The red carpet: a celebrity circus?
Some say the red carpet phenomenon has become something of a celebrity circus. This dates to the late 1990s, when ascerbic mother-daughter duo Joan and Melissa Rivers started giving their catty commentary on fashion from the Oscars red carpet for E! entertainment.
Soon, the walking-in procession became almost more popular than the event itself. Everyone wanted to see the interaction between reporters and actors, and to have the answer to that all-important question: “What are they wearing?”
To avoid being humiliated for poor choices, actresses began hiring teams of stylists and design houses began paying stars to wear their dresses, so they could act as “brand ambassadors”.
Now TV stations stream hours of live red-carpet coverage to feed audience demand; there’s a Mani Cam to show what manicures the stars favour; and a Glam Cam 360 lets us see the glittering frocks from every angle.