The Original Red Carpet

The Original Red Carpet

By Lorena O'Neil



That crimson path celebrites walk on at awards shows holds more history than you think.

By Lorena O'Neil

As award show aficionados know, the red carpet before an event can be just as exciting as the event itself, particularly for fashionistas looking for inspiration or gossip-lovers looking to make fun of somebody’s horrendous outfit. The Oscars first started using a red carpet in 1961 and it’s now a staple in Hollywood – it’ll certainly be a main draw at the Golden Globes on Sunday. But where did this tradition begin? With the original Hollywood drama of life: a Greek play.

If we want to take a look at the first reference to someone walking on a red carpet, we have to look back. Way back. As in 458 B.C. back. Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of plays called Oresteia and the first play Agamemnon tells the tale of King Agamemnon’s victorious return from the Trojan War. (Spoiler alert: Aeschylus was all about tragedy.)

Agamemnon heads home with prophetess Cassandra, whom he has taken as his concubine, at his side. He is greeted by his wife Clytemnestra – who by the way is upset with him for sacrificing their daughter, and has taken a lover of her own: Agamemnon’s cousin. Burn. She tries to persuade him to walk along the “crimson path” she has laid out for him, on a tapestry leading from his chariot to his home.

In 1902 the New York Central used red carpets to direct passengers boarding their trains.

“Do not adore by strewing my path with vestures… it is the gods whom we should honor with such ceremonies,” objects Agamemnon. He refers to walking on the carpet as a “barbarian act” and is horrified at the public extravagance he’d be displaying. ”There is great shame to squander one’s household, destroying with one’s feet wealth and fabric purchased with silver.”

The “red carpet” from the play is thought to be less of what we think of as a carpet, and more of a tapestry that would have been destroyed once Agamemnon walked on it. In fact, scholar Lynda McNeil argues that the rug may have been a bridal cloth commonly used as a robe and to cover the marriage bed. She thinks Clytemnestra used it as a symbol of how Agamemnon degraded their marriage, both by killing their daughter and bringing a concubine home.

However, Clytemnestra insists and Agamemnon finally relents, walking to his doom by igniting the wrath of the gods.

Colorful etching of Greek play in outdoor theater

Ancient Greece: Theatre – Production of the tragedy Agamemnon

”Virtually all critics of the play have felt that when Agamemnon placed his feet on the expensive cloth pathway, he somehow sealed his fate,” writes scholar Gregory Crane. Literary critic Anne Lebeck says that it wasn’t the act of walking on the carpet that lead to Agamemnon’s death (by the hands of Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ version of his bathtub murder), but that his walk on the red carpet was a symbol either of his stupidity or the sacrifice of his daughter. “The arrogance and folly in the heart of Troy’s conqueror are given magnificent external expression,” in the infamous carpet scene, writes Lebeck.

Cassandra ends up following Agamemnon on the carpet, and is met with a similar fate by the end of the play. 

…the rug may have been a bridal cloth commonly used as a robe and to cover the marriage bed.

While Aeschylus does foreshadow a bit of Hollywood tabloid fodder a la Brad/Angelina/Jen with love triangles of his own, the truth is the “crimson path” was first referenced as something so special and royal that only gods should walk on it. Everyone else, be damned. Maybe Meryl Streep should think twice before risking the wrath of the deities by walking down the red carpet at her next award show.

Oh, who are we kidding? If there’s a Hollywood equivalent of a Greek goddess, Meryl’s got it in the bag.