Sharaff, Irene (1910–1993)

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Sharaff, Irene (1910–1993)

American costume designer. Pronunciation: SHAR-eff. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1910; died in New York City on August 16, 1993; studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, the Art Students League, New York City, and the Grande Chaumière in Paris; never married; no children.

Selected filmography:

Girl Crazy (1943); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); Yolanda and the Thief (1945); The Dark Mirror (1946); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947); A Song Is Born (1948); An American in Paris (1951); Call Me Madam (1953); A Star Is Born (1954); Brigadoon (1954); Guys and Dolls (1955); The King and I (1956); Les Girls (1957); Porgy and Bess (1959); Can-Can (1960); West Side Story (1961); Flower Drum Song (1961); Cleopatra (1963); The Sandpiper (1965); Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); The Taming of the Shrew (1967); Funny Girl (1968); Hello Dolly! (1969); The Great White Hope (1970); The Other Side of Midnight (1977); Mommie Dearest (1981).

Over the course of her 50-year career, costume designer Irene Sharaff worked on some of America's most significant musicals, often producing costumes for the stage and film productions of the same work, such as Flower Drum Song, Funny Girl, West Side Story, and The King and I. She also designed for non-musicals, among them the films The Sandpiper (1955), The Great White Hope (1970), and Mommie Dearest (1981). Known for her stylish creations and her use of color, Sharaff also worked in television, ballet, nightclubs and fashion illustration.

Sharaff was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1910, and originally wanted to become a painter. She was trained at New York's School of Fine and Applied Arts and the Art Students League, and also attended the Grande Chaumière in Paris. She began her career as an assistant to Aline Bernstein , at the Civic Repertory Theater Company in New York, and many of her earliest shows included scenery as well as costumes. She first gained recognition for her sets and costumes for Eva Le Gallienne 's 1932 production of Alice in Wonderland, then went on to design scenery and costumes for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. By the mid-1930s, Sharaff was designing major Broadway plays, including As Thousands Cheer, Lady in the Dark, On Your Toes, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She launched her Hollywood career with the musical Girl Crazy in 1944 and worked steadily in films from then on, designing for both

the stage and movies simultaneously. During her lifetime, she was nominated for sixteen Academy Awards, winning five. She won her first for her scenery and costumes in the ballet sequence in An American in Paris (1951). That same year, she created the sumptuous oriental costumes for the stage production of The King and I, for which she not only won a Tony, but set a trend in fashion and interior decorating that lasted for several years. In 1956, the designer won an Oscar for her work on the film version of The King and I. She also won for West Side Story (1961), Cleopatra (1963), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Sharaff's remarkable color sense came from her art background. She claimed that she saw everything in blocks of color, "rather like painting a picture." She elaborated in an interview: "If I have a leitmotif, a logo, I suspect it is associated with the colors I prefer—reds, pinks, oranges—and with a certain cut which seems to reappear in many of the shows and films I've worked on." Although she dressed many stars and celebrities, Sharaff believed that true style was a very rare thing. "The only theater people I can think of who have it are Audrey Hepburn and Betty Bacall," she said in a 1967 interview. "The one who had it to the greatest degree was Gertie Lawrence . She could make a sackcloth tied with a belt look stylish." Sharaff, who made her home in New York, suffered from emphysema toward the end of her life, and died at the age of 83, of congestive heart failure.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Leese, Elizabeth. Costume Design in the Movies. NY: Dover, 1991.

"Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. August 17, 1993.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theater. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts