A quintessential symbol of Hollywood, red carpets have been largely bypassed during the past few months due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. A-list actors, who power the red carpet machine, are mostly barred from promoting their movies, swapping glamorous gowns and tuxedos for picket-line fashion.
With the SAG and studio heads indicating a potential agreement is on the horizon, the upcoming red carpet season seems likely to move forward, welcoming back the shine of Hollywood stars to the crimson carpet. Fashion stylists, designers and actors will collaborate once again to embrace the esteemed tradition, showcasing their curated outfits at premieres and award shows.
To understand how red carpets became so popular and relevant in the entertainment and fashion industry, it’s necessary to go back 2,480 years.
Did the red carpet originate in ancient Greece?
The most popular version of the red carpet’s origins is linked to Greek playwright Aeschylus, who mentioned a red carpet in “Agamemnon,” dated 458 BC.
For Dr. Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén, author of “Fashion on the Red Carpet: A History of the Oscars, Fashion and Globalisation” and a Sweamfo Research Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California, the history is a little more complex to tell than that.
“There are several references to ‘Agamemnon’ being the first mention of a red carpet, but I have always hesitated about this association,” Lundén said to WWD. “For once, as a historian, the mere mention of a ‘first’ something raises skepticism, but also because these texts have traveled through several translations/interpretations in which meaning has shifted to suit phrasings and audiences.”
In “Agamemnon,” Clytemnestra, wife of the main character, speaks of a “floor of crimson broideries to spread / For the King’s path.” For Lundén, the color is a point of contention. “It is said to be purple rather than red,” she explained, adding that only on a version called “Agamemnon in Plain and Simple English” (Golgotha Press, 2013), does the text directly mention the color red saying, “Cover the ground for the king to walk soon with the red carpet. Let all the ground be red where his feet pass and justice, previously absent, bring him home to the hearth he bought he would never return to.”
Lundén also questions the use of the word “carpet” in “Agamemnon.” “In Spanish, for example, the word ‘alfombra’ is used, which translates to carpet. Still, in English, the words used include “tapestry,” “cloth” and even “purple-strewn way.”
Why the red carpet is…red?
Before red, there was purple. Considered a rare color because of its expensive pigment, “tyran purple” was described as the royal color after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. “Do not forget that these colors can be pretty close to one another as “Tyran purple” had a reddish shade,” Ludén said. The color was described by Ruth Kassinger as “a deep purplish red,” called “blata” by the Greeks, meaning “the color of coagulated blood,” according to the historian.
In the Elizabethan era (1558–1603) in England, the color purple was made officially regal by legislation, reserving the color purple only for royalty. “These were called Sumptuary Laws, and regulated which colors, fabrics and clothes could be worn by different social classes in England,” Ludén explained.
With time, the color purple used by royals became more and more red. Around 1760, the French discovered how to dye wool, silk and cotton in bright red, using red dyes mainly for upholstery and tapestry. In the 19th century, the red color was already a symbol of status.
“Throughout history, red has had many different connotations. Michel Pastoureau ascribes connotations to life force, the divine, love, lust, anger, wealth and power — war. In medieval times, it also carried religious significance as the blood of Christ and the fires of hell, love and beauty. In modern times, and with the advent of the psychology of color, red continues to carry some of these connotations. It elicits action, attracts attention; it is associated with danger, power, passion and aggression,” Ludén said.
Trains, airplanes and the red carpet treatment
Lundén says the “red carpet treatment” can be found in American newspapers at least since the days of Fashionable Society (1821 to 1861). “The red carpet lands in modern society with European aristocrats who wanted to maintain certain traditions that elicited their status in society. It became a widespread practice in society circles, used for events such as weddings, balls and receptions. This was no modest affair but a full-blown red carpet with carriages arriving and even curious crowds and the printed press covering some of these happenings. These descriptions can be found in newspapers.”
For the historian, the red carpet “symbolized status, something most people had no access to.”
After the Industrial Revolution, the red carpet was associated with power and wealth and train companies started using them for their clients to board trains. “With the announcement of the “first class” section in the brand new 20th Century Limit train, the red carpet treatment became a marketing strategy to welcome the wealthy on board. This strategy had a spin-off in the ’50s, with the emergence of air travel and a new form of society known as ‘the jet set’,” Ludén said.
In 1963, United Airlines introduced its single-class “Red Carpet Service” on transcontinental routes.
Red carpet in Hollywood
Theater magnate Sid Grauman, who created the Chinese Theatre and the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, was the first to use the red carpet for a Hollywood premiere while promoting its $1 million film “Robin Hood,” starring Douglas Fairbanks, in 1922.
Grauman’s red carpet was an attempt to make Hollywood more presentable to society. “Hollywood was the epitome of decadence, and film was not seen as an art form but as cheap entertainment for the masses, more closely associated with a circus than an opera house,” Lundén explained. The Hays Code was created in 1934, prohibiting profanity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape in movies.
While the first Oscars were held in 1929, the ceremony wasn’t a public media event until 1944. Over the years, the awards show featured different red carpet structures, but the first official coverage happened in 1961 with Bob Hope inside the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. In 1964, the red carpet started to be filmed outside the venue, showing stars arriving in their limousines.
The red carpet fashion industry
In 1994, Joan Rivers covered the Golden Globes red carpet and asked guests one simple question: “Who are you wearing?” Since then, fashion has become an essential part of every red carpet event.
“It’s become the world’s largest ad, the world’s largest fashion show. So for people like myself, who don’t get invited to fashion week and don’t get to sit in the fashion show, it’s like the best of and it’s an insider’s peek. You don’t have to be Anna Wintour to see what’s coming,” said television host Melissa Rivers, daughter of the late Joan Rivers and former cohost of the “Fashion Police.”
For Melissa, Nicole Kidman can be credited for transforming the red carpet into a runway after wearing a chartreuse gown by John Galliano at the 1997 Oscars. “It was the first true couture on the red carpet. And she suddenly forced everyone to raise their game,” she said, adding that her look was a pivotal moment. “We weren’t going to see Demi Moore in bicycle shorts again.”
The late 1990s and early 2000s are considered the peak of red carpet fashion. “You had these women who loved fashion and knew how to wear it and knew how to work it. So it was one of those ‘Lightning in Bottle’ moments, where you happen to have Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Halle Berry, Sharon Stone and these women who knew it and understood it and loved it,” Melissa Rivers said.
Fashion brands became more invested in the red carpet business after seeing what a good advertising avenue it could be. In 2019, for example, the Cannes Film Festival red carpets generated $101 million in media impact value for multiple brands, according to Launchmetrics.
After decades of movie premieres and award show coverage on television, Melissa Rivers said she thinks the audience is now more “educated” when it comes to red carpet dressing. “People now have a much greater understanding of the art of fashion than before. Nobody really thinks that, you know, it’s just coming out of a factory….I think people become much more educated of fashion being an art form. I think that’s wonderful,” she said.
The future of the red carpet
Over the last decade, red carpet events, such as the Golden Globes, Oscars and Grammys, have reportedly lost viewership due to different factors — In 2022, the number of Academy Awards viewers reached 15.36 million, half as big as in 2017, when the ceremony reached 32.9 million viewers, according to Statista.
Melissa Rivers said red carpets lost their sparkles once it became all about marketing, something Dr. Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén agrees with. “Everyone has become highly aware of the fashion branding aspect of red carpet events, and nobody wants to see one more privileged person walk in one more costly endorsement deal dress. Think about it. It is about rich people getting paid to get expensive stuff for free so you dream about saving money to afford it. In a time when people are struggling to pay their rent, it has become quite ludicrous,” Lundén said.
The social media advent is the second to blame, according to both. “Now we’re seeing everything on Instagram and TikTok before they even hit the carpet. On a bigger scale, I think it’s become very safe. There’s a loss of fun and I’m not talking about fashion, I’m just talking about the whole experience. Everyone’s so scared to say anything and that’s going to get them canceled or in trouble or accidentally have something taken the wrong way. So I think it’s become very boring. The fun is gone, the joy is gone,” Melissa Rivers said.
Lundén added the proliferation of red carpet events as a huge factor in the loss of public interest surrounding these events: “Even for me, as an expert, it isn’t easy to cope. They do not bring anything new or exciting, in fact, they have become utterly dull. Nobody could possibly bring anything new or exciting at such a consistently accelerated pace.”
Main events of the red carpet season
Jan. 6 to 7: Creative Arts Emmy Awards
Jan. 7: Golden Globe Awards
Jan. 9: Governors Awards (moved from Nov. 18)
Jan. 14: Critics Choice Awards
Jan. 15: Primetime Emmy Awards (moved from Sept. 18)
Feb. 4: Grammy Awards
Feb. 18: BAFTA Film Awards
Feb. 24: SAG Awards
Feb. 25: Film Independent Spirit Awards
March 10: 96th annual Academy Awards