If you follow celebrities and award shows at all, you’re no doubt familiar with the red carpet. It’s really a staple of any major Hollywood event. But have you ever wondered why that is? Why do ceremonies like award shows always have a red carpet? Why always choose that color?
Why Do Award Shows Have a Red Carpet?
Given that we normally associate purple with royalty, and that films stars are kind of like the royals of today, you wouldn’t be faulted too much for wondering why “purple carpets” aren’t more common. It turns out, red was also used by royalty way back when. Rich colors were almost exclusively associated with the wealth. The red pigment has historically been one of the most expensive out there.
With that in mind, we start to see the popularity of red carpets rise around the Renaissance, though the origins might go back much farther. (We’ll touch on that second part later.)
Around the 14th century, European painters began using vibrant carpets as backdrops for their work. These carpets originated from the Middle East, and commonly featured the color red. Through trade and western imperial tendencies, these vibrant carpets would become vanity items in the west.
In Renaissance art, these opulent rugs came to be used mostly to stage important figures or events. Because this was the Renaissance, that meant religious figures. So you’d be seeing a lot of Saints or other important Christian figures standing/sitting on these red rugs. Eventually, the Church stopped mandating all art be about the religion, so the carpets’ context began to expand. They were still used to highlight important actions/figures, but now extended to also refer to the wealthy or exotic.
When Was the First Red Carpet?
The earliest instances we can find of the red carpet’s use date back to around 450 BC. We’re looking at the Greek stories surrounding Agamemnon.
To give the quick summary, Agamemnon was a king who had a large role to play in the siege of Troy. He declares himself a better hunter than Goddess Artemis and she demands his daughter’s blood as tribute to atone. Despite Artemis taking a deer instead (Agamemnon’s daughter becomes a priestess of Artemis); Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, is told by a seer that Artemis has brutally slain her daughter. This in turn earns Agamemnon the hatred of Clytemnestra. As a result, Clytemnestra and her lover plot to kill Agamemnon when he returns from Troy.
So when Agamemnon comes home, he finds a red carpet set by his wife-to-be-killer. He treads lightly, saying that red is the color of the gods and he, as a mortal, has no right to step on it. Clytemnestra goads him into walking on it and later kills him. Both in revenge, and to serve the narrative of the myth that nobody can stand up as an equal to the Greek Pantheon.
Seeing as how devoted we as a society are to our celebrities, walking on the pigment of the gods seems pretty fitting for red carpet actors and actresses. Though Rami Malek probably isn’t going to be taking Zeus’ place anytime soon.
The Red Carpet, Presidents, and Trains
James Monroe, US president in 1821, had a red carpet rolled out for him. There was also the 20th Century Limited passenger train, which greeted passengers with, you guessed it, a red carpet. It’s commonly believed that the phrase “red carpet treatment” originates from the railroad.
By the Hollywood premiere of Robin Hood in 1922, a red carpet would be used for its showing at the Egyptian Theatre. Red carpet premieres would become some of the only ways people could see their favorite celebrities, cementing the connection between red carpets and Hollywood from then on out.
Like red carpets? Take a quiz about red carpet movies here.