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Sharaff, Irene


Costume Designer. Nationality: American. Born: Boston, Massachusetts, 1910. Education: Attended the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, Art Students League, New York, and La Grande Chaumiere, Paris. Career: 1928–30—assistant designer to Aline Bernstein, Civic Repertory Theatre Company; 1932—designer for Broadway plays, and for several ballet companies; 1943–45—costume designer, MGM, then freelance designer for films. Awards: Academy Awards for An American in Paris, 1951; The King and I, 1956; West Side Story, 1961; Cleopatra, 1963; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966. Died: 16 August 1993.

Films as Costume Designer:


Girl Crazy (Taurog); I Dood It (Minnelli) (co); Madame Curie (LeRoy) (co); Broadway Rhythm (Del Ruth)


Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli); Bathing Beauty (Sidney)


Yolanda and the Thief (Minnelli) (co)


The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler); The Dark Mirror (Siodmak); Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli) (co)


The Bishop's Wife (Koster); The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (McLeod); A Song Is Born (Hawks)


Every Girl Should Be Married (Hartman)


An American in Paris (Minnelli)


Call Me Madam (W. Lang)


A Star Is Born (Cukor) (co); Brigadoon (Minnelli)


Guys and Dolls (Mankiewicz)


The King and I (W. Lang)


Porgy and Bess (Preminger)


Can-Can (W. Lang)


Flower Drum Song (Koster); West Side Story (Wise and Robbins)


Cleopatra (Mankiewicz) (co)


The Sandpiper (Minnelli)


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols)


The Taming of the Shrew (Zeffirelli) (co)


Funny Girl (Ross)


Hello, Dolly! (Kelly); Justine (Cukor)


The Great White Hope (Ritt)


The Way We Were (Pollack) (co)


Mommie Dearest (Perry)


By SHARAFF: book—

Broadway and Hollywood: Costumes Designed by Irene Sharaff, New York, 1976.

By SHARAFF: article—

"Is Fashion an Art?" in Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (New York), November 1967.

"Les costumes de Cléopâtre," in Positif (Paris), May 1977.

"Un Américain à Paris," in Positif (Paris), July-August 1996.

On SHARAFF: articles—

Theatre Arts (New York), November 1949.

Chierchetti, David, in Hollywood Costume Design, New York, 1976.

Leese, Elizabeth, in Costume Design in the Movies, New York, 1976.

LaVine, W. Robert, in In a Glamorous Fashion, New York, 1980.

Obituary in The New York Times, 17 August 1993.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 30 August 1993.

Dance Magazine, November 1993.

Current Biography, March 1997.

* * *

Making motion pictures often demands more from an artist than the duties suggested by an official title. Had "costume designer" Irene Sharaff merely sketched pretty dresses for stunning starlets, prestigious MGM studios would have slammed shut the pages of her drawing pad. But Sharaff's talent included a strong intellect, a fine eye, intuitive insights, and ingenious ability for original adaptation, and an integrating mind that united all into workable designs.

Sharaff succeeded quickly as a New York stage designer. She showed a clever use of color in her costumes for Irving Berlin's Easter Parade. For this stage revue, various shades of browns, tans, and other neutrals mimicked the pages of the New York Times rotogravure. Sharaff's designs for Alice in Wonderland won acclaim as reconstructions of the original Tenniel illustrations. These successes caught the attention of MGM filmmakers who hoped to translate Sharaff's theatrical skills into bankable Hollywood ventures. Specifically, they sought a suitable designer to deal with the new technicolor process. Sharaff did not disappoint them after she joined the staff in 1942.

MGM designated Sharaff's skills to the Freed unit, which made some of the world's most memorable musicals. Almost immediately, her touch turned projects into screen gold. Meet Me in St. Louis, for instance, was a nostalgic valentine of lace, swiss dots, and ruffles. But the An American in Paris ballet sequence proved the costume designer's finest hour, as it utilized a multitude of her various talents. For this ballet, Sharaff based her visuals on a number of famous French painters. Paying homage to the Impressionists and several Post-Impressionists, she translated the colors and techniques of individual artists to set design and costume, even as she facilitated Gene Kelly's dances with garments constructed specifically for movement. Even the fabrics flowed with harmonizing rhythms.

Sharaff's career displayed considerable variety. The King and I sparkled with exotic ethnic dress. Can-Can offered an imaginative "Adam and Eve" ballet complete with guises from animal to insect. West Side Story glorified the uniforms of working-class New York toughs. A few years later, The Sandpiper peopled the beaches of Big Sur with contemporary bohemians. Sharaff often dressed Elizabeth Taylor, be it as Egyptian queen (Cleopatra), a brilliant but testy Renaissance jewel (The Taming of the Shrew), or an overweight, aging slob (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Late in her career, her designs for Mommie Dearest amplified the lurid lustre of Hollywood glamour in the '40s and '50s.

Throughout her remarkable 50-year career, Sharaff translated her visions from stage to screen, using all the artistries of the world as inspiration. Understanding the natures of film, the stage, and ballet, she recognized their similarities and differences. Starting with this knowledge, she splashed it with just the right colors and elevated each creation to optimum advantage. Sharaff will best be remembered for taking the superficial show out of show business and replacing it with the depth of fine art.

—Edith C. Lee, updated by Denise Delorey

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