Formerly reserved for royalty, the red carpet has been a Hollywood fixture since 1922, when Sid Grauman hosted the premiere of Robin Hood at his Egyptian Theater. The film starred Douglas Fairbanks, the “First King of Hollywood.” Today, the red carpet is synonymous with the Academy Awards, and the parade of stars outside the theater is as important to the fashion industry as the ceremony within is to film. More than just a runway, the red carpet has become a lucrative, high-stakes site where luxury brands pay millions of dollars to have celebrity “ambassadors” promote their clothes, jewelry, makeup, and shoes to millions of viewers. Recent research has demonstrated that female characters are vastly underrepresented in popular films, but on the red carpet, celebrity women are front and center.
At the same time, the red carpet has always been a potential site for women’s political commentary and activism, from Elizabeth Taylor wearing a red HIV/AIDS ribbon in 1992 to Emma Stone sporting a Planned Parenthood pin in 2017. Occasionally such support will take a more concrete form. For example, Minnie Driver donated her 1998 Oscars outfit (which she wore the year she was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her role in Good Will Hunting) to a fundraiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Her ensemble, which included a Halston dress, fur stole, and shoes, was one of fifty-six outfits auctioned.
In the last few years, high-profile social media campaigns, from #AskHerMore to #OscarsSoWhite to #MeToo, have forced the entertainment industry to reckon with the ways in which women, LGBTQ people, and people of color are treated and represented, as was evident at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. A vast majority of the attendees wore black to show support for Time’s Up, a multifaceted initiative dedicated to ending sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace.
Royal Red Carpets: The Early History
Why do movie stars walk on a red carpet? The color red has been used to indicate high rank and privilege for centuries. As early as 458 B.C.E., the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote of “a crimson path” laid down to welcome Agamemnon after the fall of Troy. Even the victorious warrior-king was hesitant to step upon it, however, since red was considered a divine color. (Agamemnon had good reason to be wary – his wife Clytemnestra, who arranged the red-carpet welcome, was preparing to murder him in his bath.)
What made red textiles so precious? Prior to the invention of synthetic dyes in the mid-1800s, red was one of the world’s most expensive dyestuffs. Madder, derived from the root of a plant, gave a russet or orange-red, but true reds had to be painstakingly concocted from the bodies of tiny insects. These dyes were valuable commodities, for they were used in the production of tapestries, carpets and rugs. These textiles, in turn, were highly sought-after luxuries in European courts.
“A Rich and Great Merchandize”
Dyes from the Old World were supplanted in the sixteenth century by cochineal, a cactus parasite native to the highlands of Central and South America. Prior to the Spanish invasion, the peoples of present-day Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador perfected the art of cultivating and harvesting the delicate insects. Dried and pressed into cakes, cochineal was traded widely throughout the region and used to dye ceremonial textiles.
In the Aztec Empire, such textiles were a source of wealth, and their production was the province of women. In a time and place where wealthy men practiced polygyny, this conferred status on women who were especially gifted at spinning, weaving, and embroidery, as skilled textile-makers were sought-after marriage partners among the elite. Among the Inca, skilled women weavers also held high status, for clothing was strictly governed by sumptuary laws. Bright colors were reserved for the elite, and red was considered a royal color.
To the Spanish Empire, cochineal was “a Thing of prodigious Consequence.” By the end of the sixteenth century the Spanish were forcibly collecting tribute in cochineal from native cultivators, and shipping it by the ton to Seville and Cadiz. From there, cochineal was sold to textile centers in France, Venice, and the Netherlands, and traded as far as China, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia, illustrating the global nature of the luxury textile trade.
In order to maintain this profitable monopoly, Spain imposed strict controls on the cochineal trade – indeed, it was so mysterious that some of the first Europeans to write about cochineal were uncertain as to whether it was a seed or a bug. However, everyone agreed that it was “as red as Blood within.”
In an effort to crack the Spanish monopoly, rival European powers turned to piracy and espionage. In 1776 a botanist named Nicolas-Joseph Thiery de Menonville sailed to Veracruz on a mission to smuggle cacti and cochineal back to French territory. His efforts to establish cochineal on Saint-Domingue (Haiti) failed, but his work was published in 1787. (A copy of Thiery’s book, Traité de la culture du nopal et de l’éducation de la cochenille, is held in the New-York Historical Society Library.)
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Work like Thiery’s helped spread information about cochineal production, allowing rival producers in Java, Guatemala, and the Canary Islands to compete. By the 1830s and 1840s, cochineal flooded the market and prices dropped by as much as three-quarters. Around the same time, a taste for carpets began to spread among the growing European and American middle class, which would be fed by displays of Persian and “Oriental” rugs at the international exhibitions held throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
Although importers continued to provide many of the floor coverings in American homes, in the late 1820s American manufacturers ventured into the carpet business themselves. Because carpet-making at that time relied upon skilled hand-weavers, employers initially imported workers from Great Britain, where weaving was considered a job for male laborers. When power looms were introduced, however, the workforce changed considerably.
Women took over as setters, winders, and tenders and, as one historian estimated, “one competent girl would produce in a day an amount equal to the product of ten English or French hand looms attended by as many men.” Employers assumed a workforce of women would be cheaper and more docile, but the women carpet-weavers proved to be staunch union supporters, ready to strike against pay cuts and poor treatment.
By 1845, while visiting the Polk White House, a young woman named Elizabeth Dixon recognized the East Room’s red carpet as the product of a Connecticut mill. She wrote in her diary that the carpet featured “a ruby ground & gold colored eagle & stars. I suppose the height of a carpet manufacturer’s ambition is to make one for the President’s house.”
Red Carpet Treatment
With power looms beginning to replace hand-weaving in the late 1840s, and the development of new synthetic red dyes in the 1870s, red carpets became ever more affordable. By 1902, anyone who could afford a ticket on the New York Central Railroad’s 20th Century Limited Express could walk the red carpet installed at Grand Central Station to board the luxurious train – hence the origin of the phrase “red carpet treatment.” But it was Hollywood that truly became synonymous with the red carpet in the early twentieth century.
The red carpet did not debut at the Academy Awards until 1961, but it quickly became a popular part of the Oscars telecast after 1964 when the stars were first filmed arriving at the theater, smiling and waving. Starting in 1966, the Oscars were broadcast in color and viewers could finally see the red carpet for themselves.
Today’s red carpet is 50,000 square feet and requires about 900 hours to install, with great care taken to minimize the possibility of an embarrassing stumble. Like the long-ago cultivation of cochineal, the exact shade of the Oscars carpet remains a closely guarded trade secret.
If you would like to experience a walk on the red carpet yourself, be sure to visit the upcoming exhibition Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery from April 20 to October 8, 2018.
– Jeanne Gutierrez, Center for Women’s History
This post is part of our “Women at the Center” series written and edited by the staff of the Center for Women’s History. Look for new posts every Tuesday! #womenatthecenter
Top Photo Credits: Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville (1739–1780), Traité de la culture du nopal et de l’éducation de la cochenille dans les colonies Françaises de l’Amérique. Hand-painted engraving. Cap-Français: Herbault, 1787. New-York Historical Society Library; Book of the Century: Flagship of New York Central’s Great Steel Fleet, 1948. Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera. New-York Historical Society Library; #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and Michelle Williams at arrivals for 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards. The Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills, CA January 7, 2018. Photo by Dee Cercone/Everett Collection.