The Oscars will be held on February 9, 2020 and although there's a lot of speculation as to who will win select categories, there's one attraction of the event that never changes — the red carpet. The red carpet has been a part of many Hollywood award shows, but when did the red carpet become such a central feature and why?

An ancient history

Large patrician staircase with iconic red carpet, with soft lighting and architecture
Credit: trait2lumiere/ iStock

One of the central reasons that red is associated with high-profile events is the same reason that purple is associated with royalty. In the past, rich-hued textiles were expensive to produce, which made them almost exclusively available to wealthy individuals. Like many other items throughout history, the more expensive an item, the more likely it was to be recognized as a status symbol.

The first known mention of a red carpet used as a pathway for an individual of high status was recorded in 458 BC in the Greek play “Agamemnon.” In the play, the wife of king Agamemnon lays out a crimson carpet to lead the king back to his throne. Although the scene might sound similar to Hollywood, it has far more sinister implications since it foreshadows the queen’s eventual murder of the king.

Medieval uses

Red became fashionable among the elite in medieval times as well. At the end of the 13th century, the Pope decreed that only cardinals, the highest-ranking members of the Catholic church, were allowed to wear red. Across the Atlantic, members of both the Mayan and Incan civilizations had similar restrictions that made red a color to be worn only by royalty and other wealthy individuals.

Industrial Revolution

Red carpet and rope
Credit: Fotosr52/ Shutterstock 

Advances in the textile industry made creating red fabrics a much less expensive process during the Industrial Revolution and suddenly the red carpet became a much more common decoration. However, although the color became more accessible, it did not lose any of the connotations associated with high-profile members of society. One of the first modern instances of the use of a red carpet was in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1821. When president James Monroe visited the city, the citizens felt that the best way to welcome him was to lay out a red carpet for him.

The red-carpet treatment

While all of these historical events set a precedent for red carpets at awards shows, perhaps the most direct inspiration for their use comes from a train station. In 1902, the 20th Century Limited Express began taking passengers on the fastest train route ever constructed from New York to Chicago. The operators of the train wanted it to be associated with speed and luxury, so they set out a red carpet for passengers to follow as they boarded the train.

It is assumed that this use of the red carpet inspired the owner of the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles to prepare a red carpet for the premiere of the Douglas Fairbanks film “Robin Hood” in 1922. This was considered the first true movie premiere and it began a tradition that is kept alive in Hollywood today.

This tradition was first adopted by the Oscars in 1961 — the first year that the preshow arrival ceremony was broadcast on television. When broadcasting adopted color in 1964, the red carpet popped even more and became an iconic part of the celebration. So, when you're enjoying the Oscars this February, take a moment to think about the long legacy of the red carpet.