Oscars Red Carpet: A Brief History

Courtesy Everett Collection

For decades, stars great, small and dubious have swanned down the Oscars’ regal rug. Turns out the backstory is as rich and multifarious as a David O. Selznick epic.

For decades, stars great, small and dubious have swanned down the Oscars’ regal rug — crimson being the color of royalty for millennia. But what of its origins? Turns out the red one has a backstory as rich and multifarious as a Selznick epic.

PHOTOS: 7 Stunning Watches to Hit the Red Carpet on Time

458 B.C.

In Aeschylus’ tentpole tragedy, Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to find that his wife, Clytemnestra, has laid a path of dark red tapestries, supposedly in his honor. He fears that treading on them will be perceived as an act of hubris, punishable by the revocation of his ancient SAG card. Clytemnestra prevails, and before you can say, “Brother, where art thou?,” she snuffs him with a shiv. As Agamemnon observes before his hit, “Only the gods deserve the pomps of honor, I am human.” Exactly. Would that 21st-century red-carpet honorees were so humble.


In Georgetown, S.C., a ceremonial red carpet is rolled out for President James Monroe when he arrives by riverboat. “Who did the cutaway?” Joan Rivers yells at him as he disembarks.


The New York Central launches the 20th Century Limited, an exclusive passenger express between New York and Chicago. Embarking passengers at Grand Central Terminal walk a red carpet that runs the length of the platform, supposedly inspiring the bromide “red-carpet treatment.” In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant escapes Manhattan on the Limited — the scene was shot at Grand Central and featured a carpet by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. Grant, disguised as a Red Cap, and Eva Marie Saint tromp on plush red when the train arrives in Chicago.


Hollywood’s first red carpet event usually is ascribed to the opening of Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and the premiere of Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. The irrepressible Grauman, a founding Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member, later would take credit for the red carpet becoming a staple at Hollywood events.


The first Oscars red carpet is rolled out at the 33rd Academy Awards on April 17, 1961, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.


The Oscars are broadcast in color for the first time, giving millions of viewers a glimpse of the red carpet in living color on fruitwood-trimmed console Zeniths.


The American Turf and Carpet company takes over making the Oscars’ red carpet. The continuous filament nylon creation is manufactured and dyed in Dalton, Ga., and replaced every two years. The carpet is not wholly red. It’s dyed with a proprietary blend of colors used exclusively for the carpet to make it read red on television (“Nancy Reagan Red,” Rivers has called it) and sealed to prevent the color from degrading under assault from innumerable Manolo Blahniks.


The Oscars move to the Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre. The red carpet follows.


U.S. forces invade Iraq three days before the Oscars. In deference, the preshow hoopla is scaled back dramatically, including the red carpet itself, which shrinks to a vestigial doormat in front of the theater entrance.


A metastasizing number of awards events and premieres inspires organizers to roll out carpets in yellow (like at 2013’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards), blue, pink and even white. The Grammys, Emmys and Oscars remain steadfastly red.


Today’s Oscar red carpet has grown to 16,500 square feet and takes two days to install. Scraps are jealously guarded to keep them out of the mitts of eBay trolls.

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.