Explained: The red carpet – its origin and journey through time


Denoting high status and prestige, the red carpet has been the path for the stars at glamourous events for decades now. It is where the cameras follow celebrities to record their fashion preferences, where photo calls are made, and quick questions are answered. While it is primarily associated with celebrities and ceremonies now, the history of the red carpet is rather complex and grim, far removed from its modern-day associations.

As the movie world descends on the Cannes red carpetwe trace its journey from appearance in a Greek tragedy in 458 BC to a railway station in 1902, and finally showbiz.

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The ancient connection

The first known reference to the red carpet was arguably made in Agamemnon, a 458 BC play by Greek playwright Aeschylus, where Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, rolls down a crimson carpet for the king after he returns home triumphant from the Trojan War, but when both husband and wife have found new love.

With the color at that time associated with the gods and not meant for the mortals, by asking him to walk the “crimson carpet”, Clytemnestra is, in fact, inviting his death. The lines in the play read: “Now my beloved, step down from your chariot, and let not your foot, my lord, touch the Earth. Servants, let there be spread before the house he never expected to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path.”

A hesitant king walks the crimson path, worried that he will face the wrath of the gods and see his death.

In a 1993 journal article — ‘Politics of Consumption and Generosity in the Carpet Scene of the Agamemnon’, Gregory Crane, a professor at Tufts University, suggests that rolling out the red carpet for royalty might have been an old custom in the Near East.

Significance of the color red

Red was a color that only the elite could afford in medieval Europe as scarlet was one of the most expensive dyes.

In Turkey, the vibrant red was made through a laborious process, where the root of the rubia plant was used as colourant and fabrics would be soaked multiple times in sheep dung, olive oil and other ingredients.

In Mexico, deep red was produced by crushing the cochineal, a scale insect, from which the natural dye carmine was derived. Native to tropical America, it was used during the reign of the Aztec and Maya Empires in America for dyeing fabrics and was a valuable export. In the 16th century, after Spain conquered what is now Central and South America, they sold red dyes made from cochineal insects across Europe and eventually other imperial powers began to produce them.

Apart from the dye, the handwoven carpets were also expensive, making them accessible to a limited few.

Several Renaissance paintings have red carpets as a symbol of opulence and also for deities.

Although the red dye became much more affordable after the Industrial Revolution and the invention of synthetic dyes, the associated connotations continue.

‘Red carpet treatment’

In 1821, the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, famously walked down a red carpet when he arrived in Georgetown, South Carolina. However, the phrase “red-carpet treatment” is believed to have its origins in the promotions for the 20th Century Limited, an express passenger train on the New York Central Railroad. Running from 1902 to 1967, it took people from New York to Chicago much faster than the previous trains. Those traveling by it were welcomed at the Grand Central Station with a red carpet in Art Deco style, signifying the luxurious treatment they would receive during travel.

Journey to Hollywood

In Hollywood, the carpet reportedly arrived in 1922 when American showman and theater owner Sid Grauman rolled out a red carpet at the premiere of Robin Hood at the Egyptian Theatre, and actor Douglas Fairbanks became one of the first stars to walk on it.

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started rolling out a red carpet at the 33rd Academy Awards in 1961, it was only in 1964 that the ceremony and the arrival of guests began to be broadcast on television in color and the crimson of the carpet became visible, and finally celebrated.

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