The talented, award-winning designer who costumed Broadway's biggest hits and dressed great stars
by David Wolfe
Article from Paper Doll Studio Issue 92, 2008 (out of print)
She was every bit as chic as any of the stars she costumed. Irene Sharaff looked exotic with a strong profile and commanding presence. She herself had stellar charisma which she emphasized with heavy eyeliner, hair pulled back in a chignon and soignée outfits. No wonder she knew how to design costumes for some of Broadway and Hollywood's fashion plates: Gertrude Lawrence, Barbra Streisand, Rita Hayworth, Greer Garson, Cyd Charisse, Lauren Bacall, Esther Williams and Gypsy Rose Lee.
When she used Thai silk for "The King and I" (for which she won the 1952 Tony Award) the colorful fabric became a rage in fashion and interior decoration. Thanks to her, it became Thailand's number one export. But Irene Sharaff never allowed fashion to overwhelm characterization and her reputation for authenticity and research is what made her one of the most important costume designers in the history of theatre and film.
Irene Sharaff was born in Boston in 1910 and died in New York 83 years later. Her long life was devoted to her art and she began her illustrious career as a fashion illustrator for "Vogue" and other magazines of the day. In 1928, she was hired by Eva La Gallienne, the great actress who was then founder and managing director of the Civic Repertory Theatre. Irene, just a teen-age art student, was expected to design costumes and scenery as well as appear on-stage in crowd scenes. Because the company operated on a shoestring, young Irene learned to compensate with creativity and haunted off-beat shops and sources for unusual fabrics and trimmings; lampshade fabrics for gowns and toilet chains for necklaces. She never outgrew that approach even when, years later, she worked with generous Broadway and Hollywood budgets. The budget for Elizabeth Taylor's costumes in "Cleopatra" was astronomical.
Always the artist, in 1931 Irene fulfilled a dream by going to live in Paris. There she studied the work of painters who designed for the theatre; Christian Berard, Pavel Tchelitchew and Andre Derain. She was exposed to the fashions of great couturiers of the day; Chanel and Schiaparelli. When she returned to New York, her career soared. She won a prestigious award for "Alice in Wonderland" in which she cleverly adapted the engravings of John Tenniel's famous illustrations. Then she caused a sensation by creating an entire stage full of sepia-tone costumes to look like old photographs for the "Easter Parade" production number in Irving Berlin's show, "As Thousands Cheer. ". She dressed Gertrude Lawrence as the neurotic fashion editor in "Lady in the Dark" and said the sophisticated star was "so chic she could make a sackcloth tied with a belt look stylish. "
Hit followed hit and Irene Sharaff's talents were so prodigious that she became bi-coastal and divided her career between Broadway and Hollywood. On the West Coast her success was phenomenal and long-lasting. It included costumes for "An American in Paris," "Brigadoon," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "A Star is Born," "The Way We Were," "Mommie Dearest" and more than 50 other films.
Despite her five Academy Awards and nine nominations, Irene Sharaff is primarily remembered as a major Broadway costume designer. Nominated for five Tonys, the hit shows she costumed are legion and legendary. They include: "West Side Story, "Happy Hunting" (with Ethel Merman), Irene" (with Debbie Reynolds), "Sweet Charity" (with Gwen Verdon), "As Thousands Cheer," "Hallelujah, Baby," "Funny Girl" (with Barbra Streisand), "On Your Toes" and dozens more.
In her book of memoirs the designer revealed some interesting insider information. It was she who advised Yul Brynner to shave his head for his role as the King of Siam. At first he balked, but gave in and became a bald icon. Loretta Young felt her neck was too long and so a foam rubber false torso was made to heighten her shoulders and thus shorten her neck. She wore it under every costume in "The Bishop's Wife. " Deborah Kerr, playing Anna in the movie version of "The King and I," complained about the enormity of the hoopskirts but Sharaff had the documentation to validate her designs. The designer did compromise when Gertrude Lawrence was ill and the metal hoops in the crinoline were replaced with lightweight bamboo. The star discovered she could swing the hoopskirt high as she danced and the costume became a highlight of the show. Movement is an important factor in stage design and Irene Sharaff's understanding of that made her the ideal creator for ballet costumes. She designed more than 17 ballets for leading companies.
Although she designed costumes in a variety of styles encompassing most of fashion history, Irene Sharaff does have a signature. She often created dresses with a snug-fitting curvaceous torso and a very full skirt, a variation on a ballerina's classic dress.
Sharaff's sense of color is famous and she said she always dreamed in color. "I see everything in blocks of color, rather like a painting. If I have a leitmotif, a logo, I suspect it is associated with the colors I prefer.reds, pinks, oranges. " She often used a limited palette to great effect. In "The Girl on The Police Gazette" she dressed Gypsy Rose Lee and showgirls solely in pink and black, referencing the fact that the vintage tabloid was printed on pink paper. In "Magdalena" she dressed the entire cast in every conceivable hue and tone of red for a spectacular production number.
As well as designing costumes, Irene Sharaff was a gifted sculptor and painter, an interest she shared with her life-companion, Mai-Mai Sze, a China-born fashion model turned actress and writer as well as painter.
Although she designed 56 Broadway shows, 28 major Hollywood films and 17 ballets for leading U.S. companies, it is probably her breathtaking work in "The King and I" that will be best remembered. The show's composer, Richard Rogers, said to Irene Sharaff, ".never, in my opinion, has a job of costume designing contributed so much to the success of a play."