Red Carpet History

The Golden Era of The Red Carpet

Vanity Fair article, August 2014 with contributions from Joan and Melissa Rivers, and Women’s Wear Daily executive editor Bridget Foley.


Late Hollywood showman Sid Grauman may have created the town’s red-carpet tradition, by splashing out a crimson-colored walkway in front of his Egyptian Theatre for the first-ever Hollywood premiere, Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, in 1922. But the idea of a red carpet stretches all the way back to 458 B.C. and the Aeschylus play Agamemnon, which depicts a Trojan War hero who returns home to find a crimson carpet rolled out for him by his wife. The protagonist balks at the prospect of “trampl[ing] upon these tinted splendors” because he—“a man, a mortal”—does not believe himself worthy of strolling the gods’ walkway. (The Kardashians might take a cue from such modesty.)

Given the red carpet’s ancient roots, miles and millenniums from Hollywood, it is impressive, but not altogether surprising, that the town’s professional scene-stealers have hijacked the carpet’s historical connotations and outshone its other occupants (royalty, presidents, and dignitaries among them) to ensure that the world’s most prestigious floor covering is first associated with Hollywood glamour.

In the golden age of Hollywood, the red carpet was one of the few places where its motion-picture stars—Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow in their full-length fur, Clark Gable escorting Carole Lombard, the lankily handsome Jimmy Stewart, and a waist-cinched Grace Kelly—could be seen and sought out for autographs beyond studio walls. Without paparazzi, tabloids, or the Internet (and the lowbrow wannabes this holy trinity brings) the red carpet was an exclusive, far-away place where the world’s most charismatic movie stars were seen. Alas, the actual pigment of the carpet did not matter much to far-away fans since color film and photography were not in common use yet.

In fact, decades later, when the red carpet was first introduced at the Academy Awards, in 1961, the rug’s redness was still not discernable to at-home viewers of the black-and-white broadcast. A representative at the Academy’s library claims that event organizers didn’t install the ruby runner for Grauman-esque flair but as a practical way of guiding the year’s bold-faced nominees such as Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, and Janet Leigh from their cars to the ceremony door at the event’s new venue, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

The Moment It Changed

The plot of the red carpet has been the same since Douglas Fairbanks walked Hollywood’s first crimson plank 92 years ago. The question has always been, how do you make each carpet a little bit different?

The answer, for actors in the 70s, “Express Yourself” 80s, and the early 90s: by following Barbra Streisand’s suit—specifically, her sequined, see-through Scaasi pantsuit in which she accepted her 1969 Oscar for Funny Girl. After that bold podium moment, stars began differentiating their red-carpet looks via their varied fashion senses. The stylish surprises this scenario invited, combined with a surging interest in celebrity culture thanks to the advent of People magazine in 1974, catapulted the carpet into new territory. It was no longer a revered runway for studio-groomed stars, but a place for sartorial whimsy that bred water-cooler conversations.

Barbra Streisand Oscar

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