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A Brief History of the Red Carpet

A Brief History of the Red Carpet

With the Oscars just around the corner, let’s take a look at how the red carpet became Hollywood’s most glamorous photo op.

It’s almost time for the Oscars, which means it’s almost time for the Oscars’ red carpet—the most prestigious and glamorous awards show red carpet of the year. And, let’s be honest, the only reason a lot of people even bother tuning in to the Academy Awards in the first place.

Lady Gaga, Lupita Nyong’o, Zoë Kravitz, Halle Berry, Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Kristen Stewart, Nicole Kidman—they’ll all be there this year. (A bunch of men will be there too, but they’ll mostly just be wearing tuxedos, so, really, who cares?) Although Hollywood didn’t invent the red carpet, it has certainly used it to its greatest effect over the last hundred years, to the point where it’s hard to imagine one even existing without the other.  

“The origins of the red carpet are said to go all the way back to ancient Greece,” Dr. Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén, a professor of Media Studies at Stockholm University and the author of Fashion on the Red Carpet: A History of the Oscars, Fashion, and Globalization, says.

“But in the United States, the tradition first appeared among society circles, who welcomed wealthy attendees to their luscious balls by laying out the red carpet.”

It was a practice most-likely borrowed from European royalty—about whom American oligarchs have always been obsessed—who, from the Renaissance on, were often painted standing on or near fantastically expensive (and predominantly red) rugs imported from Asia.

Thus, within the context of the United States, walking the red carpet has always been associated with high class and prestige—“two things Hollywood was after by the time of the first Academy Awards in 1929,” Lundén says.

Billy Porter arrives on the red carpet wearing a tuxedo dress
Image via Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock.

The Oscar Origins

Images via Kobal/Shutterstock, Snap/Shutterstock, Snap/Shutterstock, and Snap/Shutterstock.

That first ceremony was a relatively tame affair—fifteen awards given out over fifteen minutes following a private dinner for 270 people at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

It wasn’t until the ceremony moved to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1944 that it became a bona fide public spectacle with hundreds of fans gathering to fill the bleachers that lined the red carpet, hoping to catch a glimpse of the arriving stars.

Hobnobbing at the 1944 Oscars, while Joan Crawford famously opts to accept her award from bed. Images via Snap/Shutterstock, Str/AP/Shutterstock, Snap/Shutterstock, Snap/Shutterstock, and Snap/Shutterstock.

Edith Head sits at a table with her several Academy Awards in the background
Edith Head and her many Academy Awards. Image via Everett/Shutterstock.

During World War II, the Academy Awards adopted a more informal dress code in keeping with the austerity measures of the time. But after, fashion took center stage as the industry came roaring back across the globe.

“The reactivation of transatlantic trade and the entrance of European designers into the American market after the war took the Oscars by storm in the 1950s,” Lundén says.

Stars like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly received almost as much attention for what they wore to the Oscars as for the performances that got them there and designers like Hubert de Givenchy and Edith Head became household names.

Actress Grace Kelly arriving at the Academy Awards wearing an Edith Head gown
Actress Grace Kelly arrives to the 1955 Academy Awards in a gown by Edith Head. Image via George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.

Head is probably the most famous designer in the history of Hollywood. She was nominated for thirty-five Academy Awards for costume design during her career and won eight, making her the most awarded woman in the Academy’s history.

She often referred to the Oscars’ red carpet as “the world’s greatest fashion show” and took it upon herself to guarantee that it lived up to that designation by working with the stars to ensure everyone showed up looking appropriately glamorous and distinct.

After all, you couldn’t have Elizabeth Taylor and Jayne Mansfield showing up wearing the same dress, now could you? Especially not after the ceremony became televised in 1953.

A Shift to Television . . . and Dressing Down

Candice Bergen sitting at a table at the 1970's Academy Awards
Candice Bergen dresses in the day’s fashions at the 1970 Academy Awards. Image via Mediapunch/Shutterstock.

“At the time, NBC executives were skeptical about the potential for broadcasting this type of event,” Lundén says. “But it was such a success that it led to the network’s interest in broadcasting other awards ceremonies nationwide, starting with the Emmys in 1955. So, in a sense, the Academy Awards ceremony is the mothership of all other ceremonies, as is its red carpet pre-show.”

In the 1960s, fashions on the Academy Awards red carpet began to take inspiration from the counterculture movements of the day, with actresses showing up in mini dresses, pants, and bright colors.

“Edith Head would get so annoyed,” Lundén says. “In 1968, afraid that the event was losing its nostalgic glamour, Head sent a polite letter to all the attendees reminding them of the event’s stature and requesting particular formal wear—dresses that were either maxi or floor-length for women and white tie for men.”

However, this trend of dressing down (at least to an extent) would continue until the late 1980s when “the fashion industry [and the American economy] made a comeback with the money infused by high-end brands and fashion conglomerates.

Whiffs of counterculture begin seeping into the Academy Awards looks in the 1960s, causing Edith to lose her head. Images via AP/Shutterstock, AP/Shutterstock, Kobal/Shutterstock, AP/Shutterstock, Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock, AP/Shutterstock, Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, and AP/Shutterstock.

And, while the red carpet’s popularity has remained relatively stable since the 1990s, we can observe new patterns in the business of the red carpet starting around 2007, with the advent of social media, which accelerated coverage of and interest in red carpet events and celebrity fashion.”

Zendaya arrives at the 90th Academy Awards in Los Angeles
Image via Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock.

A Post-Instagram World

Since then, fashion brands have recognized and begun to utilize the power of the red carpet for their own purposes, signing stars to exclusive endorsement deals—Jennifer Lawrence with Dior, Margot Robbie with Chanel—ensuring that these stars will wear only their clothing at major events like the Oscars and thus turning the stars into walking billboards for everything they sell—makeup, sunglasses, fragrances.

Images via Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/Shutterstock and Ace Pictures/Shutterstock.

But while this might make sense for the brands and stars from a business perspective, it has taken some of the fun out of the whole spectacle for those watching at home, and is perhaps at least partly to blame for the steady decline in awards (and red carpet pre-show) viewership over the last decade and a half. That, and the fact that these days there are just so many damn red carpet events in the first place!

“The red carpet is still significant,” says Lundén, “both culturally and economically, but it has been diluted by the proliferation of these events.” Even the Oscars, the oldest and most prestigious awards show in Hollywood, often feels stale, coming as it does after months of other, nearly identical—if less glamorous—events. 

Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Benefit
Image via John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock.

The Met Gala

The one red carpet that seems to be growing in significance right now is that of the Met Gala. Steered by the Chanel-clad iron fist of Vogue’s Anna Wintour, the Met Gala is easily the most exciting, glamorous, and over-the-top red carpet of the year. Rather than preceding some larger awards show, the red carpet at the Met Gala is the show. At least, as far as those watching at home are concerned.

Things do happen inside the actual event—dinner, a musical performance—and the whole thing is a massive fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, but all that comes after the event’s prolonged climax on the red (sometimes beige) carpet-clad stairs outside the museum’s front entrance.

Images via Shutterstock, Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock, Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock, and David Fisher/Shutterstock.

“It’s something completely different,” Lundén says. “It’s a parade that strives to showcase the intersection of fashion and art, and it’s been very effective at casting a shadow on the Oscars’ red carpet.”

Which is not to say that was ever the Met Gala’s intention, but no one can remain on top forever. Culture is constantly evolving and the red carpet is a reflection of that culture.

The Met Gala is on top right now, but in ten years . . . who knows?

Images via John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock, JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, and John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock.

Besides, if the ratings for the Academy Awards keep slipping, they could be relegated to some lesser streaming service or done away with altogether in the not-so-distant future.

But, even if that does happen, even if all the awards shows disappear, the red carpet will probably still exist in one form or another.

It’s nothing if not adaptable and, anyway, it’s lasted this long.

Cover image via Rob Latour/Shutterstock.

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