Why are Hollywood stars received with a red carpet at events? The answer involves Greek gods, Renaissance paintings, and railroad cars.
The first recorded instance of a red carpet is in the play Agamemnon, written by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus and first performed in 458 BCE. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and commander of the Greeks in the Trojan war, is greeted by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, who unfurls a carpet of crimson robes for him to walk upon—“a floor of crimson broideries.”
What a welcome! But Agamemnon is suspicious—only the gods are treated to such luxury, and he is but a mortal.
“’Tis God that hath / Such worship; and for mortal man to press / Rude feet upon this broidered loveliness …/ I vow there is danger in it,” he says, wary of the wrath of the gods that might come upon one who was so prideful.
(Spoiler alert: Agamemnon obliges, and he is subsequently murdered by Clytemnestra.)
The use of a red carpet to welcome the gods must have been in place before this time in order for the tradition to be established, but most of what we know comes after this time.
In Renaissance paintings, Oriental rugs lined the floors leading up to the thrones and palaces of rulers, patterned with red and gold. The provided a path of luxury and a mark of social and political dominance as kings and queens ascended to their seats of power.
Why red? Scarlet dye was once reserved for the wealthy; it was made from the cochineal scale insect which rendered it expensive and difficult to make. Additionally, the color red has long been associated with power, passion, and dominance. Nothing calls for attention quite like a bright crimson banner announcing who’s in charge.
In the start of the twentieth century, railroad cars began giving first-class passengers the royal treatment by welcoming them on board with a red carpet—a mark of exclusive luxury and high status.
The 1920s saw the beginning of the red-carpet treatment for Hollywood stars: in 1922, Robin Hood stars Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, and Enid Bennett stepped out on a red carpet to greet fans at the first true Hollywood premiere. The carpet stuck, and with it came flamboyant displays of wealth, fame, and fashion.
So is the red carpet a reflection of a hallowed reverence for actors and entertainers? Do we bestow upon celebrities the honors once reserved only for deity and royalty? Is Hollywood the aristocracy of modern America?
Let us know what you think in the comments!
Aeschylus. Agamemnon. 458 BCE. Sparknotes. https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/agamemnon/full-text/the-agamemnon/.
Bass-Krueger, Maude. “The Secret History of the Color Red.” Google Arts and Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/the-secret-history-of-the-color-red/GwLyao99SLXVKg?hl=en
Baker, Lindsay. “Where Does the Red Carpet Come From? BBC. February 22, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160222-where-does-the-red-carpet-come-from?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2F.
Henderson, Amy. “What Is the Origin of Hollywood’s Red Carpet?” Smithsonian Magazine. October 25, 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-is-the-origin-of-hollywoods-red-carpet-180949038/.