The crimson path that Oscar nominees tread dates back at least 2,500 years. How did it become the ultimate signifier of celebrity? Lindsay Baker investigates.

It denotes stratospheric status, style and opulence. It conjures up glitz and glamour. It is the focus of the contemporary Oscars experience and the mainstay of today’s awards ceremonies, gala events and premieres around the world. The iconic red carpet sets the movie stars who step on it apart from us mere mortals.

It was ever thus. In its earliest known incarnation the red carpet was not intended for ordinary folk. A path of dark red tapestries was rolled out in ancient Greece, in the Aeschylus play Agamemnon, when the King’s vengeful wife Clytemnestra prepares for the triumphant welcome home of her husband from the Trojan War. Even the King hesitates to walk on the “crimson path” laid before him, because he is “a mortal, a man” and not a god. “I cannot trample upon these tinted splendours without fear thrown in my path,” he says – and indeed he comes to a sorry end soon after setting foot on it.

Scarlet was among the most prized dyes as it was the most difficult to make and the most expensive – Sonnet Stanfill

“It’s interesting that the red carpet has become synonymous with movie stars who in a sense have become the royalty of today,” Sonnet Stanfill, senior curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, tells BBC Culture. “The evolution of the picture house in the second half of the 20th Century made them the palaces of the people. There’s a certain synergy about the red carpet – that was traditionally to welcome royalty – now welcoming film royalty.”

In Renaissance art, red carpets and rugs appeared frequently, usually Oriental and intricately patterned in style, and were seen in paintings of deities, saints and royalty. Why was that? “Red as a colour has long been associated with prestige, royalty and aristocracy,” says Stanfill. “Scarlet was among the most prized dyes as it was the most difficult to make and the most expensive.” Cochineal or carmine dye was – and still is – made from the cochineal scale insect and was used in the 15th Century by the Aztec and Maya people in north and central America for colouring fabrics. By the 17th Century cochineal dye was a hugely valued export.

The origin of the phrase ‘red carpet treatment’, meanwhile, is thought to derive from the start of the 20th Century

A scarlet-hued carpet continued to denote high status, and in Georgetown, South Carolina, in 1821, the arrival of US president James Monroe was marked by the laying out of a red carpet to welcome him ashore from a riverboat.  The red carpet has since become a standard addition to high-profile events involving political dignitaries. The origin of the phrase ‘red carpet treatment’, meanwhile, is thought to derive from the start of the 20th Century, when the red carpet was co-opted by the railroads. An exclusive, express passenger train run by the New York Central Railroad from 1902 welcomed its passengers aboard with a red carpet, which also helped guide them onto the train.

Smile for the camera

It wasn’t until the1920s that the red carpet and Hollywood became truly synonymous. In 1922 a long, crimson-hued carpet was unfurled in front of the Egyptian Theatre for the Hollywood premiere of Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. And in the decades that ensued, the red carpet was one of the few places where the public could catch a glimpse of charismatic stars like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Then, in 1961 the red carpet was introduced at the Academy Awards at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. A few years later, the broadcasters of the ceremony opted to film outside the venue, showing the arrival of guests as they stepped out of their limousines. From this point in 1964 the red carpet became a globally acknowledged focal point for actors and actresses to make a grand entrance and showcase themselves at the Oscars.

Showmanship, after all, is the essence of the Hollywood red carpet, and the red carpet appearances that have gone down in history tend to be the unique moments of bold, peacockish display and swagger – confident, flamboyant, provocative and individualistic. Barbra Streisand’s sequined, see-through Scaasi trouser suit worn in 1969 generated as many headlines as her Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl.

The turbulent dynamic between movie-star couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was played out on the red carpet at the 1970 Academy Awards, when Taylor’s deeply glamorous and revealing violet dress and diamond necklace upstaged her husband’s Academy Award nomination. In 1978 Diane Keaton accepted her Best Actress Oscar for Annie Hall in a ‘statement’ menswear-inspired suit. And then of course there is Cher, whose unique red-carpet outfits have included a feathered headdress and – for her 1988 Moonstruck Oscar victory – a barely-there, black lace Bob Mackie number.

Today, the Oscar red carpet is the focus of an ever more fearsome media frenzy each year

The red carpet can be career defining, too – in Britain, actress Elizabeth Hurley sprang into the public consciousness overnight by donning a dramatic Versace dress to a premiere that she attended with Hugh Grant. The dress, which appeared to be held together by giant safety pins, came to be known as ‘That dress’. It was a deliberately sexy, edgy choice of dress, and was subsequently featured in the V&A’s Versace exhibition. “It was very Versace and very provocative,” says curator Stanfill. “She was making a display, and there was a sense of showmanship about it. In that sense she was a descendent of Streisand and Cher.”

By the 1990s fashion and the movies were becoming inextricable, and the red carpet was the place they came together. Certain designers dominated, and Valentino and Giorgio Armani became particularly known for their red-carpet flair. In 1997 Nicole Kidman upped the game, wearing a green Dior gown that was the first bona fide couture dress to be seen on the red carpet. In the early ‘00s Renee Zellwegger and Julia Roberts were among a handful of stars to rebel and wear vintage dresses on the red carpet, while the Icelandic singer and actress Björk went one step further in her memorable Marjan Pejoski swan ensemble.

Who are you wearing?

Today, the Oscar red carpet is a massive 16,500 sq ft, takes two days to install, and is the focus of an ever more fearsome media frenzy each year. There is a new intensity of scrutiny and criticism – thanks in part to the unforgiving GlamCam360 and ManiCam. Most of the big designers are now creating special red-carpet lines. ‘Pay-to-wear’ deals with designers are commonplace, as are powerful red-carpet stylists. Perhaps for these reasons, actresses are increasingly playing safe with feminine, sure-fire flattering options. And there is a certain symmetry in the recent proliferation of the pastel, princessy gown on the crimson carpet – as if the red carpet is going back to its royal roots, laying a path for contemporary fairytale princesses. This is after all Tinseltown, a place of fantasy and escape.

Still, the likes of Tilda Swinton and other fashion-savvy stars know how to break the rules in inimitable style. And last year’s Twitter ‘ask her more’ campaign showed there is appetite for unpredictability. It would be nice to think that there is still space on the red carpet for real boundary breaking, and that some brave soul might take a risk, take it that one step further – wear a swan around their neck, say, and lay some giant ostrich eggs on the hallowed red carpet. After all, at the time it happened Björk may have topped the dreaded worst-dressed lists, but 15 years on, the wild-and-wonderful swan dress was exhibited at MoMA, and Björk’s bonkers, egg-laying moment has gone down in Oscars red-carpet history.

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