Where did it all begin?
Red carpets have long been laid out for royalty and political powers at high-profile events and ceremonies. Although, the most widely recognised use of red carpets today, are of course, the ones laid out before movie stars and celebrities, as they pose outside premieres and exclusive events in extravagant attire – the Met Gala and the Oscars to name a few. But how and when exactly did the red carpet make its way into Hollywood? What does it symbolise? And, what does this practice say about our infatuation with celebrity culture?
Today, the red carpet may be associated with Hollywood, but it certainly didn’t start here. In fact, the notion of a red carpet dates back as far as 458 B.C. in ancient Greek literature, in Aeschylus’ play ‘Agamemnon‘. In this play, a red carpet is laid out before King Agamemnon upon his return home from The Trojan War. This exclusive treatment, however, concerns the king, for he believes that it will anger the gods: “I cannot trample upon these tinted splendours without fear thrown in my path.” Unfortunately for King Agamemnon, his suspicions proved true, as he soon succumbs to an unfortunate demise, shortly after stepping foot on the carpet. It really is fascinating to learn that this notion of an exclusive carpet, not fit for the wider population, existed in literature more than 2,500 years ago.
It wasn’t however, the carpet alone that held significance, the colour red has been a powerful symbol of many strong associations throughout history. At the time when Aeschylus’ play was written, red was the colour of the god and goddess of war. Red symbolised fire, bloodshed, and fury, whilst simultaneously symbolising love, passion, and warmth. These powerful yet conflicting connotations are perhaps why King Agamemnon was so fearful of treading on the carpet. He was afraid of mocking the gods, imitating them merely by setting foot on this symbolic footing that was never fit for a mortal man’s tread.
“The red carpet treatment”
It seems as though our infatuation for red carpets has existed for millennia. Amy Henderson, a cultural historian told TODAY Style: “There are references to the Aztecs and Mayans using scarlet-hued carpet in the 15th century. The reason, I’ve been told, is that scarlet dye was very rare, so it was quite a high-status symbol”. Interestingly, these associations of status and wealth have continued throughout contemporary history and remain prevalent to this day.
Let’s explore this notion further.
200 years ago, in 1821, James Monroe, fifth president of The United States was famously welcomed upon his arrival into Georgetown, South Carolina with a grand crimson carpet. This is the first known use of an ‘official’ red carpet in modern history, and it was seen to be a gesture of great respect.
81 years later, in 1902, the red carpet was famously used again, this time, by the New York Central Railroad. Wealthy passengers who boarded this luxury train between New York to Chicago, (dubbed “the train of tycoons”), were greeted with a plush red carpet that led them to their cabins. It was at this time, that the phrase “red carpet treatment” was born.
The royal and powerful
Have you ever noticed the famous red stairs of Air Force 1, which have been tread by presidents throughout history? And, have you noticed the extravagant red hallway of the White House, paving the way for high-profile political powers?
What about our own British monarchy? We have all peeked at photographs of Buckingham Palace and its grand crimson carpets, the famous ruby and gold crown of England, and we’ve certainly watched admiringly the famous royal weddings, as the bride and groom walk down the red paved isle. Even the Queen’s guards are dressed in red! Without even thinking twice about it, the colour red and indeed, red carpets remain synonymous with wealth and grandeur. They seem to be everywhere exclusive and influential. Through these deeply ingrained associations between a red carpet and power, we instantly associate the person walking it to be a really big deal.
This is where I find the connection to Hollywood fascinating.
One small step for Sid Grauman, one giant leap for Hollywood
The red carpet was first introduced into celebrity culture in 1922 by Hollywood showman, Sid Grauman. The Egyptian Theatre founder rolled out a crimson footing for the actors and actresses of Hollywood’s first ever movie premiere, Robin Hood. This would be the first time that film stars ever set foot on an official red carpet, an act that would soon become the most influential tradition of showbiz.
So when did the red carpet truly take off in Hollywood? Well, it was not until 39 years after Grauman’s premiere, in 1961, that the red carpet fronted a major Academy Awards event. Senior Vanity Fair writer, Julie Miller, notes that “the rug’s redness was still not discernible to at-home viewers of the black-and-white broadcast”, but what was clear, is that this was the beginning of a whole new celebrity culture.
In 1964 at the Oscars, just three years into this new red carpet tradition, the media’s coverage of the event had changed. There was far more interest on what was happening before the event started. The footage showed the film stars exiting their cars in their formal attire, greeted by the sound of cheering fans. This was the moment where celebrity culture as we know it, truly began.
It was no longer just about the movie premiere, the awards ceremony, or exclusive event. It was about the celebrity.
The modern-day cult of celebrity: what’s next?
Today red carpet events are all about the celebrity: what designer are they wearing? Who’s their plus one? And, what behind-the-scenes gossip will the magazines be dishing out? The red carpet has taken the spotlight off the event its fronting and has instead become a fashion show and catwalk for our favourite celebrities and fashion designers.
As a society, we have become infatuated with celebrity culture, we simply cannot get enough of them. But given the red carpet’s rich history of royalty, godliness, and power, it has me wondering: are modern day celebrities the new royalty? Are we shifting away from traditional hierarchy? And, with so many more avenues to ‘fame’ due to the rise of social media influencer culture, is this tradition losing its gravitas?
Written by Isabella Noulton