With awards season underway there’s one question on everyone’s mind: why a red carpet? Of course people are always fascinated by the history of trappings that are so ubiquitous they go almost unnoticed in the same way the awards are always about honoring only the very best achievements without the taint of commercialism or backroom dealing, and that’s why every Best Picture winner at the Oscars has always been non-controversial and still holds up as objectively great filmmaking, but that’s another story.
The red carpet that stars, celebrities, notables, VIPs, luminaries, bigwigs, heavyweights, hotshots, and occasional genuinely accomplished people stroll down has an interesting history. The first instance of a red carpet being used by the film industry was when one was rolled out for the premiere of Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks in 1922, although it didn’t become a staple of the Oscars and other awards shows until 1961 when they were finally able to get a really long carpet without stapling a bunch together. And speaking of the length the current longest red carpet in the world is almost four miles long and, according to experts, really ties the room together. In fact it’s so long it can tie several rooms together with enough left over to make a fancy bow. It was rolled out for the opening of a shopping center in Almeria, Spain, but I’m sure the event was untainted by any commercialism or anything like that.
The term “red carpet treatment”, however, can be traced back even further to the New York Central Railroad and the 20th Century Limited train which was limited to carrying passengers from New York to Chicago. It was also limited to less than the 20th century since it only ran from 1902 to 1965, and passengers were extremely upset that it took sixty-three years to get from Grand Central to the LaSalle Street Station. A red carpet directed first class passengers to the cars specially reserved for them, associating a red carpet with importance and luxury, or at least people who were able to pay for importance and luxury. Prior to that, though, a ceremonial carpet was rolled out in Georgetown, South Carolina out for President James Monroe when he disembarked from a riverboat, although that might have been so he wouldn’t get his shoes muddy. Earlier than that the color red was often associated with royalty, saints, and deities, particularly in Renaissance paintings, because red dye was the most difficult and most expensive to produce, so only royals, saints, and deities could afford it, not that the association was tainted by any commercialism or anything like that.
The red carpet’s association with the theater actually goes back even farther and isn’t just limited to the West. During China’s Ming Dynasty actors would perform on a red carpet rather than a raised stage. Later when they did start using raised stages they would still cover the stage with a red carpet and being “on the red carpet” was an expression for acting.
Going back even farther, in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon, the king’s wife Clytemnestra welcomes him home by having her servants spread out a red carpet next to his chariot and says to him,
Sweet lord, step forth,
Step from thy car, I pray-nay, not on earth
Plant the proud foot, O king, that trod down Troy!
Agamemnon, having been unfaithful to his wife and also realizing he’s in a Greek tragedy, says, “Something bad’s about to go down here, ain’t it?”
And that explains why the carpet is red. It’s the perfect color for hiding the blood.