credit Patrick Aventurier/Getty
words George Pendle
The first historical reference to a red carpet appears in the Greek tragedy Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus and first performed in 458 BC. Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War, has returned home after ten years away. His wife, Clytemnestra, greets him by laying luxurious, dark red tapestries on the ground leading up to their palace. Agamemnon is appalled: “Only the gods deserve the pomps of honour and the stiff brocades of fame … I am human, and it makes my pulse stir with dread.”
The reason for his displeasure was that, at the time, it was incredibly difficult to make such a carpet and Agamemnon knew it. He speaks of how this splendorous floor covering was “dyed red in the sea”, meaning it was stained using the secretions of the murex sea snail. This dye, known as Tyrian purple, was incredibly difficult to work. It took approximately 12,000 snails, either crushed or “milked”, to yield just 1.4g of pure dye – enough to colour the trim of a garment. It’s little wonder that Agamemnon felt that the gods would judge him for walking upon a whole carpet made of the stuff.
Eventually, however, after much umming and ahhing, Agamemnon takes off his sandals, walks down the carpet, angers the gods, and is subsequently murdered in his bathtub by his wife. As such, he is perhaps the first character in recorded history to be destroyed by his home furnishings.
Curiously enough Agamemnon’s grisly fate did not deter others from trampling the crimson. For millennia, red carpets were the preserve of emperors, kings and popes, a bright visual shorthand for immense wealth and god-like stature. It was not until the rise of synthetic dyes that the red carpet became increasingly prevalent and less an item of awe than one of hospitality. By 1938, “the red carpet treatment” was being offered on a daily basis to travellers on the 20th Century Limited, the luxurious express train that ran between New York City and Chicago. Passengers walked to their Pullman cars along a plush red carpet – emblazoned with the Henry Dreyfuss-designed 20th Century Limited logo – that stretched the length of the platform.
But while it was luxurious it was no longer exclusive. Today, the red carpet’s unseemly pervasiveness rivals that of the stretch limo. It is only at the most prestigious of awards shows that the red carpet still retains some of its ancient qualities. At the Oscars, for instance, the carpet – not actually red, but a proprietary “cayenne” colour so it looks better under camera flash – is not quite a stage and not quite real life. It’s an inbetween space of feigned naturalism, in which actors act as if they are not acting, and are asked questions that are not really enquiring.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m really happy to be here tonight!”
This call and response, using an emotional vocabulary of happiness and excitement, is as preordained as a play. Of course, this tone of uplift helps further the current purpose of the red carpet, which is to act as a venue for selling a product – be it a movie, an album, a dress or a necklace. But its artificiality also foreshadows a darker part of the night, one that hints back to the red carpet’s bloody origins in Greek tragedy. For it is only here, in all of modern life, that a person can be doomed simply for walking upon a red carpet. If a dress is too garish or a hairstyle too fussy, the lightning bolt of public opinion (guided by such lesser gods as Ryan Seacrest and Joan Rivers) can strike as quickly and fatally as the blade of Clytemnestra.