Greek tragedy and railways: An unexpected history of the red carpet

Updated 8th February 2019
Greek tragedy and railways: An unexpected history of the red carpet
Written by Thomas Page, CNNCannes, France
Read more unknown and curious design origin stories here.
It's the ship that launched a thousand beauties, and as old as Helen of Troy herself. But what do we really know about the red carpet? The red carpet predates the Academy Awards by over 2,400 years -- at least.
Arriving with a sting in its tail, the red carpet has deadly origins.
But its modern day incarnation, synonymous with wealth, glamor and stardom, is about as far removed from it's beginnings as you can imagine. So how did we get to here?

The Greek connection

Greek playwright Aeschylus claims the first written mention of a red carpet in "Agamemnon," dated 458 BC. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, speaks of a "floor of crimson broideries to spread / For the King's path."
Actress Elle Fanning on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival 2017.
Actress Elle Fanning on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival 2017. Credit: Francois Durand/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Amy Henderson, historian emeritus at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, explains why:
"Agamemnon goes away to fight (in the Trojan Wars) and leaves his wife Clytemnestra at home. He's away for a long time, and they both find significant others. When he comes back he's in love with Cassandra and brings his concubine home with him."
Despite her own infidelity, Clytemnestra is not amused. In her defense, there were mitigating factors: Agamemnon had made a deal with the gods, sacrificing their 15-year-old daughter so he could put the wind in his sails.
"Let all the ground be red / Where those feet pass; and Justice, dark of yore, / Home light him to the hearth he looks not for," says the queen.
"She rolls out the crimson carpet to convince him to walk into his death," says Henderson. Accounts differ, but Clytemnestra either murders Agamemnon in the bath, or he's slain by her lover. She also kills Cassandra. "It's not a pretty story," Henderson adds.
As a conniving early-adopter, Clytemnestra had grim proof of concept that people will follow a red strip of textile.
Why the red carpet is the ultimate stage

The red carpet treatment

Henderson notes that documents mention James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, stepping off a riverboat in South Carolina in 1821 as a show of ceremony. Although not much more is known than this, it is understood that the red carpet's relationship with transport is key.
Next, the red carpet was tied to the railroads, according to Henderson.
"In 1902, New York used plush crimson carpets to direct people boarding the trains."
"It wasn't glamorous," in and off itself, she says, but as it was largely used for first class ticket holders, the red carpet became a signifier of social status. Over time the notion of the "red carpet treatment" grew. The strip, she says, "was a way of making people feel special."

Stepping out for the first time

The first use of the red carpet by Hollywood was by theater magnate Sid Grauman. On Oct. 18, 1922, Grauman orchestrated the first Hollywood premiere. The film in question was "Robin Hood," and Grauman, owner of the newly minted Egyptian Theatre, was out to impress. After all, the movie had cost close to $1 million -- a staggering figure at the time.
Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery and other acting royalty walked the red carpet, and "the idea of glamour became instantly associated (with it). For the actors, it was all about you, and that of course is what Hollywood loves," Henderson says.
Grauman's Egyptian Theater, site of the first Hollywood red carpet.
Grauman's Egyptian Theater, site of the first Hollywood red carpet. Credit: Education Images/Universal Images Group Editorial/UIG via Getty Images
The red carpet became routine for premieres. They were roadside publicity for the films, but also proved useful for the public. Hollywood greats, who were out of the public eye more often than today, were guaranteed to feature. The red carpet brought the two together.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre hosted the Oscars between 1944 and 1946, but it wasn't until 1961 when Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to add a red carpet to its broadcast formula.
"Of course, it was black-and-white... (but) the process of the runway culture was more important than seeing it in red to begin with," Henderson says.
It was an instant success, and families began tuning in for the pre-ceremony spectacle. By 1966 when the Oscars was first broadcast in color, it was the main reason to tune in for many.
"Smart advertising executives and Madison Avenue executives thought 'Oh, what a good idea. We can have our own red carpet."
Thus, the modern red carpet transcended film and proliferation began.

The modern red carpet

Now events from the Met Gala to the Washington Correspondents' Dinner will roll out the red carpet. Even for events in cinema, the red carpet is no longer reserved for film stars.
Singer Rihanna at the Met Gala red carpet in 2017.
Singer Rihanna at the Met Gala red carpet in 2017. Credit: Getty Images
Watch a gala screening at the Cannes Film Festival and you'll find musicians and models, millionaires and moguls walking the carpet. On many occasions, they're upstaging the actors.
It's a hyperreal environment, suggests Henderson, who speaks of "these perfected creatures that somehow walk the planet. We can mimic what they wear in make up or how they dress, but we can't really be them because they're different."
The marketing potential of the red carpet, recognized by executives, has translated in to an opportunity to sell anything that can hang off the human frame. For everything else, there's always billboards.
But for all the glamour and romance it denotes, the red carpet often suffers an undignified fate.
Environmental solutions company Veolia has a contract to recycle the 80 tons of carpet Cannes goes through every year. Sent to Carros, north of Nice, the fabric is turned into pellets and reused in packaging and road signs.
At the other end of the spectrum, per reports, the Oscars red carpet, made by Signature Systems, is destroyed after the night through undisclosed means.
Whether that is symptom or symbol of the consumerist lifestyle the red carpet now promotes is up for debate. What's beyond doubt is that from bloody beginning to beautified end, the red carpet has come a very long way.
Cinemagraphs courtesy of Gallereplay.