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The surprising, bizarre, 2,500-year history of the Oscars' red carpet

What it's like to pose on the red carpet
What it's like to pose on the red carpet
Ethan Miller/Getty

The Academy Awards recognize the biggest names and faces in Hollywood, but viewers only get to see those stars answer questions and talk off the cuff before the main event: on the red carpet. That's where a no-name actress can become a superstar, and a single dress can ruin a career.

But the red carpet is far more than just a place for starlets to wear fluffy dresses:

1) When did the red carpet debut?

The red carpet isn't a modern institution, nor one exclusive to the entertainment industry. Red carpets even appear in antiquity. In Aeschylus’ tragic play Oresteia, originally performed in 458 B.C.E, Clytemnestra lays a path of red tapestries to her door for the return of her husband Agamemnon from the Trojan War.

Red carpets also historically been used to welcome state officials and important political figures. For example, in Georgetown, South Carolina a red carpet was purportedly rolled out in honor of President James Monroe in 1821 as he exited a river boat.

The phrase "red carpet treatment," however didn't originate from its political usage. It comes, instead, from the 20th Century Limited, a luxury train that began operating between New York and Chicago in 1902. At both stations, a carpet would be rolled out so that "passengers' feet never had to touch the pavement of the platform," according to Christian Wolmar's Blood, Iron and Gold: How The Railway Changed The World Forever.

The Hollywood red carpet is believed to have originated at the Egyptian Theater's premiere of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks in 1922. The theater's owner Sid Grauman took credit for making the red carpet a Hollywood staple, though its appearance at the Academy Awards did not happen for a few more decades.

red carpet

The Dolby Theater where the awards are held (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

2) When did the red carpet arrive at the Oscars?

The first Academy Award red carpet appeared for the 33rd Academy Awards, hosted by Bob Hope on April 17, 1961.

This was before the awards were broadcast in color, so only those in attendance could see the red carpet. The first time viewers could see it was in 1966 at the 38th Academy Awards ceremony. That year, The Sound of Music took home the award for Best Picture, and again Bob Hope led the ceremony.

red carpet 2

85th Annual Academy Awards - Red Carpet Installation (Valarie Macon/Getty)

3) Is the red carpet really red?

Kind of! The red carpet is made by The American Turf and Carpet company, and has been since 1992. The company does not make simply a long red piece of carpet. Instead the red carpet is specially dyed for television with a blend of colors made specifically so it comes across as a vibrant red on televisions across America.

On top of that, the carpet is sealed so that it can take the wear and tear of dozens of stiletto heels and hundreds of feet standing on it. Even with all of the care that goes into protecting it, the carpet has to be replaced every two years to keep it looking shiny and new.

4) How long does it take to set up the red carpet?

The red carpet takes two days to install and is 16,500 square feet.

jlaw red carpet

An Alternative Look At The 85th Annual Academy Awards (Christopher Polk/Getty)

5) Is the red carpet sexist?

Women's outfits and behavior on the red carpet are generally subject to greater scrutiny than men's. While actors can arrive at the Oscars wearing any suit they choose as long as it fits decently, women have to find a dress that is impressive, and memorable, and also different from the dresses that everyone else is wearing. The pressure to look good and behave admirably is stressed for women much more than it is for men.

As Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian, "This is a strange pocket of the Western world where it is still deemed utterly acceptable to take smart, successful women and reduce them to beauty pageant contestants."

Most of them, instead of being asked about their roles and jobs, field questions about their appearance and their dresses. Here's a handy supercut of women being asked inane questions on the red carpet:

Freeman continues:

Because there is now such a fuss about who wears what, this then means that the women – understandably, really – wear extremely safe and boring things, thus undoing the primary feminist joys of fashion, the previously mentioned individuality and self-expression. Instead, female celebrities are asked to water themselves down even more than they already had to just to become celebrities, rendering themselves into Identikit fembots, all looking as thin, bland and indistinguishable as possible. This seems pretty much like the opposite of feminism.

Some female celebrities have started to speak out and stand up against the way reporters on the red carpet treat them.  Cate Blanchett called out an E! cameraman at the Golden Globes when he panned a shot up her entire body.

nicole kidman gif


Recently, more celebrities have boycotted the "mani-cam," a camera set up to record women's nails. At the Screen Actors Guild awards this year, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston refused to place their hands into the mani-cam. This seemingly small decision made headlines. The expectation on these award winning actresses was that they would show off their nails to the world because the world wanted to see them. Here's Elisabeth Moss refusing to oblige the mani-cam:

elizabeth moss gif

Talking about clothing or nails, of course, isn't sexist. Fashion is an industry and an artform that deserves to be discussed and analyzed. But reducing an award-nominated actress to the dress she's wearing is sexist.

6) Do actresses have to walk the red carpet?

Technically, no. Humans have free will and can make decisions on their own based off their own moral feelings. The natural assumption, of course, is that if women do not like being paraded around like dolls and asked inane questions, then they should simply enter the Dolby Theater via a different route avoiding the hubbub entirely. They could even, as a group, boycott the entire process entirely.

But that kind of revolution and decision isn't one that a celebrity (especially a female celebrity) can take lightly. The creation of celebrity as a brand and an image and an industrial complex makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to simply discount the red carpet.

For one thing, red carpet appearances can boost actresses' images, and thus their ability to land TV or movie roles. Having a series of great red carpet looks can get an actress the kind of notoriety she needs to accept only the jobs she wants in Hollywood.

Sponsorships also make red carpet appearances lucrative. At times, the amount of money leading actresses are offered to wear designer pieces can dwarf the pay they'd receive from a non-blockbuster movie. In 2011, Anne Hathaway was reportedly paid $750,000 to wear Tiffany & Co. jewelry. That same year, Gwyneth Paltrow was reportedly paid $500,000 to wear Louis Vuitton jewels. This, of course, is a luxury only available to top-tier actresses who are nominated for awards or likely to receive a lot of buzz on the red carpet. Women still only make up 15% of Hollywood's leading roles, so those big name deals are few and far between.

As Bronwyn Cosgrave, the author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards, told The New York Times, "For actors, this means they don’t have to make B movies. They can fund their career. And do art-house pictures while still enjoying the kind of money they’d make while making a blockbuster."

So on a purely financial level, actresses can use the red carpet to make a little more money, which isn't all bad. In theory, the red carpet is a place where actresses are given more attention and love than actors, which would be nice if they were even close to as well represented on and behind the screen.

The red carpet also does a tiny bit to counteract the huge pay gap in Hollywood. The top 10 highest-paid actors from 2013 made a collective $465 million dollars. The top 10 highest-paid actresses made $181 million. The highest-paid actress, Angelina Jolie, got $33 million, the same amount of money as the ninth and 10th highest-paid men, Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington. And that's only at the top of the list; gaps persist for lesser-known performers as well.

lupita oscars


7) What time does the red carpet start this year?

The Oscars start at 8:30 EST. The red carpet extravangaza begins at 7 p.m. on ABC.

Correction: an earlier version of this piece incorrectly labelled the gif of Cate Blanchett as Nicole Kidman.

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