Why is the red carpet red? Was it always? Is it ever another color?

By: Cate, Boston, Massachusetts

A.B. Replies: The answer to your question is that historians are annoying. They're like philosophy students or Talmudic interpreters or loudmouth uncles who say anything that comes to mind during Sunday-night Pictionary. For every one historian, there are about 12 answers to your question. Just thinking about all the research I did for you is making me tired.

First you should know that, these days, not every red carpet event features a red carpet. The Natural Resources Defense Council once had an event featuring celebrity guests like Tobey Maguire and Ben Stiller, and it had a green carpet. The British premiere of Shrek 2 also featured a long runner in charming ogre green.

The 2004 Moscow International Festival favored a skinny rug in blue; so did the world premiere of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Nickelodeon, for its part, has featured orange carpet arrivals during its Kids Choice Awards.

The tradition of a "red carpet welcome" dates way back--very early, before people wore pants or said inexplicable things like "I know, right?" Some historians point to the Greek play Agamemnon, written around 485 B.C. Like most men who enjoy poking at their enemies with sticks, Agamemnon was an arrogant little spud.

In the play, the war hero, upon arriving home and greeting his bitter wife, walks on a crimson carpet, an item regarded by his people as fit only for "the feet of the gods." Things go downhill for Agamemnon from there.

Why red? Why not beige or white? Well, on a white carpet, our paler Hollywood cave fish like Lindsay Lohan and Tilda Swinton would disappear and get lost. People wouldn't be able to locate them without radar or heat-seeking technology.

For their part, historians they say that, in ancient times, reds and purples were the most annoying and labor-intensive colors to produce. That made these colors exclusive and therefore irresistible to rich people. During the heydays of the Roman and Egyptian empires, good scarlets could not be had without killing a bunch of shellfish or bugs. And only royals and their friends could pay for that kind of mass squashing.

One of the first appearances of a red carpet in America came in 1922, seven years before the first Academy Awards. That year, Sid Grauman rolled out a red carpet for visitors to his Chinese Theater. Didactic types might also want me to mention the 20th Century Limited, a train service that ran from 1902 to 1967, shunting people like Teddy Roosevelt between New York and Chicago. Guests who bought tickets to ride "the most famous train in the world," or the "world's greatest train," walked to and from the mighty machine on a plush red carpet.

The carpet was rolled out at every station stop; hence the term "rolling out the red carpet" for VIPs.

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