Joan Rivers Source: EDGE composite image/Getty Images

Thank Joan Rivers for Making the Red Carpet the Oscar Event that it is Today

Nicholas Dussault READ TIME: 11 MIN.

In its earliest days, the Hollywood red carpet was what the stars walked when making their way into the latest premieres. Fans would line up for hours hoping to get a rare glimpse of these larger-than-life figures, hooting and hollering, calling them out by name, and if they got really lucky, they could snag an autograph. It was authentic old school Hollywood glamour at its best.

As an event, the red carpet dates back to 458 BC thanks to the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus who in his tragic play tragic play "Oresteia" had Clytemnestra lay a path of red tapestries to her door for the return of her husband Agamemnon from the Trojan War. At first he is hesitant to walk on the carpet, claiming "Only the gods deserve the pomps of honor, I am human." He should have heeded his own warning: when he does walk on the carpet, Clytemnestra kills him with a hidden shiv.

A scene from the film "Singin' in the Rain" that parodies a 1920s Hollywood red carpet premiere

Hollywood's first red carpet event was said to be the opening of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1922. Grauman, a leading movie exhibitor of the time and an Academy founding member, would later claim responsibility for having invented the red carpet. These premiere events would soon become an industry staple and reach movie audiences via newsreels of the time. They would later be presented in movies in a satiric way, as in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) and "A Star is Born" (1954), two classic Hollywood-set films that each begin with such an event. But it wasn't until 1961 did the red carpet make it to the Oscar ceremony, and not in full color. Then it was broadcast in black-and-white, so little attention was given to the carpet that would one day define an industry.

In 1964, the Academy began to use outside shots of the stars entering the theater, announcing their names as they approached the carpet, generating some heretofore unknown excitement about the arrival of the Hollywood elites. Still, very little attention was paid to the red carpet itself until the first color broadcast in 1966.

There were no reporters out there angling to talk to the biggest stars, no cable, internet, or hosts of the arrival itself. It was a glamorous, but much simpler affair. The stars didn't arrive with a glam squad, publicist, agent or even a date (or beard) in many cases. It lacked the formal industry regimen of today. For instance, in 1978 Diane Keaton drove herself to the ceremony in her Volkswagen Beetle. She parked across the street and walked onto the carpet with almost no fanfare. At the ceremony she took home the Best Actress Oscar for "Annie Hall."

Most nominees didn't have stylists either. Jodie Foster picked up her first Oscar in 1988 for "The Accused" in a short blue strapless dress with a big bustle on the back. The actress later acknowledged that she bought the dress in Rome with her mother and had no idea who the designer was. "I loved the color and it made me full of joy. I know... (it was) not my most sophisticated fashion hour but perhaps the happiest."

Jodie Foster at the 1988 Oscars (left), when she won for "The Accused." And at the 1991 event, where she won for "The Silence of the Lambs"

The Evolution of Red Carpet Style

All of this was about to change. By the time Foster picked up her second trophy three years later (Best Actress, "The Silence of the Lambs, 1991"), Giorgio Armani had set up shop and was dressing many of the A-listers of the time.

The evolution in style had begun. Stars were making choices that would make anyone question their taste. Cher had her feather headpiece moment, Bjork wore a swan dress, and Sharon Stone had the unprecedented audacity to wear Gap (yes, THE Gap) on more than one occasion to the big show. It was game on, but no one knew what was about to happen next.

It began when there was some talk around the water cooler at the entertainment outlet E! about having someone famous outside of the 1994 Golden Globes to host the arrival of the stars. Melissa Rivers knew someone at the network and told them her mother would do it. According to Joan, "They thought I was too famous, that I would never do it. It was a horrible job, but I was broke at the time. So I took the job."

Josn and Melissa Rivers
Source: Get

Joan and Melissa, and the Red Carpet

The following year Melissa joined her mother on the carpet. In no time, the Oscar pre-show with the snickering Rivers girls became much more fun than the ceremony itself. The duo tried to have conversations with the stars, and naturally when you're talking to someone in a custom couture gown, you're going to ask about it. The Rivers' trademark "Who are you wearing?" was born out of these conversations and quickly became a catch phrase that motivated designers, jewelers, hairstylists, and even nail technicians clamoring to get their wares seen on the carpet. And whether Joan and Melissa liked it or not, if they were talking about it, it was a success.

Working the carpet was not an easy gig, even for the seasoned comic. Viewers made drinking games keeping count of how many flubs Joan would make. The elder Rivers once said, "There's so much going on there. You've got to remember all the names of all these people that you've never heard of, you need to be nice to the B-listers or the publicists will keep their A-listers away from you, and, God forbid you don't like the wrong person's dress."

The New York Times even chimed in with its opinion that "Who are you wearing?" is "improper grammar" and "stupid and shallow." But Joan insisted "Actors don't want to be asked where they stand politically. They're nervous. They haven't eaten for three days. They're trying to remember who the damn designer is. Their hair is held together with extensions. You can't ask them anything too difficult!"

Times be damned, the Rivers duo kept asking, the stars kept answering, and everyone was having a ball. Joan counted Sarah Jessica Parker as one of her favorite carpet guests because, "She didn't take it too seriously. She thought it was fun, and fashion is supposed to be fun" Joan also looked forward to seeing Julia Roberts, Debra Messing, Nicole Kidman, and Halle Berry on every carpet.

by Nicholas Dussault

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