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.
“Actors [were] more in control of their wardrobes,” Bridget Foley explained to us recently. “Ironically, the result was more diversity because what celebrities wore more accurately reflected their personalities and senses of style than we see today. Someone with a casual sense of style might dress casually; someone who wanted to have fun and/or become a topic of sartorial conversation would dress for the intent—Bette Midler in miles of metallic (as I recall); Cher being glorious Cher; more recently, Bjork in her swan, which I think is the most recent instance of deliberate wackiness.”
In other words—if Mia Farrow felt like wearing a white disco-esque halter gown with silver sequins flaming from the bodice, she did. If Celine Dion wanted to wear a men’s suit backwards, with a fedora, she worked that look. And if Whoopi Goldberg wanted to wear a two-toned lime-and-purple cape to a major awards show where she would be watched by millions, she rocked it.
The designer who helped change that was Giorgio Armani, who had set up his Rodeo Drive store in 1988 and began courting Hollywood actors in the 90s, and outfitting them on their biggest nights. Among those he dressed: Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Billy Crystal. If you don’t count Hollywood costuming legend Edith Head—who designed Oscar gowns for Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor—Armani could be considered, to quote Vogue, “the original red-carpet dresser, styling celebrities for their big night even before the word ‘stylist’ came into popular usage.”
It wasn’t long before other fashion houses followed suit. For most designers, dressing a celebrity on the red carpet was a lucrative trade-off that garnered more publicity for its brand than a magazine ad ever could. But there were a few memorable moments when high-fashion designs didn’t translate for mainstream viewers. And the ensuing criticism only discouraged starlets from taking sartorial risks.
The Advent of the Celebrity Stylist & The Celebrity Ambassador
“During the 90s, Hollywood and the fashion world began fusing themselves together in an interesting way,” Foley explains. And as celebrities bumped models off of magazine covers, stylists switched their focus to celebrities as well, on- and off-camera. Only, whereas supermodels may have been eager to flaunt the highest-fashion styles, movie stars still had their mainstream audience to appeal to, and critics to appease.
“It is ironic that as fashion has become more and more accessible to the mainstream in every way, the view of fashion at the highest level—at least as represented on the red carpet—had become increasingly narrow and inaccurate,” Foley says. “Actresses want a few things from their red-carpet appearances: [First], no one wants to be trashed, humiliated, torn apart by people cast legitimately or otherwise in an ‘expert’ role. That’s human nature. Actresses are human.”
And second: “A prevailing consideration today is to look skinny. Those two realities have led to the complete domination of a few silhouettes: the strapless mermaid; the waisted ball gown, also usually strapless; other variations on the bustier bodice; the embroidered glitter-on-net body hugger that releases into a skirt with movement. Often worn with 50s/60s-type updos and major jewelry, these [styles] project a weary, retro concept of glamour. And retro glamour is what seems to resonate with the television and online critics and the broader audience.”
“The publicists realized that they could control everything,” Melissa Rivers says of the people who determine which outlets get to talk to their celebrity clients, and the grounds on which a 30-second interview can take place (“Only if you mention his/her new movie,” etc.). “It’s the nature of the business today, with 24-hours news coverage and TMZ and Twitter, everyone is so controlled [by their publicity teams] all the time,” Melissa continues. “That takes the fun out of it. I still think that E! does the best red-carpet coverage of anyone. But there’s no spontaneity, there’s no fun. Now, every third actress is being paid [to wear her dress].”
Foley confirms that this practice of paying for a starlet to wear a dress has been going on for some time now, but says that the pay-to-wear ritual is harder to track these days since it’s not “about the single-event transaction, but the enlisting of celebrity brand ambassadors with long-term contractual commitments”—such as Jennifer Lawrence for Dior, which she wore for her Oscar win.
E! takes its carpet coverage so seriously, in fact, that it has rolled out two New Age inventions over the past four years to diversify itself from its red-carpet competitors. The first, the GlamCam 360, is a 20-foot-wide ring with 48 cameras suspended in a circle, ready to simultaneously snap photos of any starlet who steps inside—the result, once edited, allows viewers, mere seconds later, to see an actress’s gown from every conceivable angle.
The second is the Mani Cam, a shoebox-style diorama, in which actresses and actors walk their fingernails down a mini-red carpet to show off their manicure. The Mani Cam seems silly in theory, and Snegaroff even concedes that the E! production team introduced it “as a goof at the 2012 Emmys.” But it was so popular with both viewers and stars that E! has continued trotting it out at every award show. And Melissa Rivers brings up a smart point about it: “There is so little individuality left on the red carpet that when E! noticed people were doing different stuff with their nails, they figured out how to highlight their nails.”
Even though E! now has the fluffy fashion-focused technology, a small army of employees to dispatch, and the whole concept of “covering people as they walk into a building” down to a science, Snegaroff admits that its biggest red-carpet moments these days have little to do with the fashion or space-age-style cams. “Last year, the biggest moment for [our coverage], was Jennifer Lawrence not realizing she was on camera [at the Golden Globes] and sneaking up behind Taylor Swift. It was an unplanned moment and that’s what makes it fun, and it’s live.” The clip—of Lawrence pulling a face for the camera before greeting Swift and joking that she wanted to throw the singer down the steps—went viral and inspired countless memes. And E! smartly referenced it at every following awards show, even at one point introducing Lawrence to the cameraman who captured her face so that she could berate him live on air. What garnered buzz was not her gown—the actress looked beautiful, if predictable, in Dior—it was her charming off-the-cuff behavior, proof positive that the red carpet’s days as a fashion talking point are over.
The Individuals Who Still Stand Out
Joan Rivers commented, “The truth of the red carpet today is that it is one big P.R. party and the goal is to get noticed. How do you do that? By either winning the Academy Award or you look or act so different that people talk about you the next day. That’s who gets on the cover of magazines and that’s who is smart.”
“There are a few people who still stand out,” Melissa adds, “Like Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton or Nicole Kidman still. You see them on the red carpet and they are clearly not owned by the stylists or owned by the designers.”
“And who is that crazy one I love so much?” Joan asked Melissa, whirring through her mental rolodex of the starlets she’s playfully dissed over the years, searching for the one that, for better or worse, at least isn’t afraid to still stick to her sense of style.
“Helena Bonham Carter.”
“God bless Helena Bonham Carter!” Joan exclaims. “I hope she takes vitamins. I want her to live forever.”
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