Costume Designer Irene Sharaff: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Who’s up for some old-school Hollywood glam? Irene Sharaff (1910-1993) designed costumes for 40 films and received 15 Oscar nominations and many of these were historical and often musicals. While not strictly accurate, her creations always made an impact on screen, making every actress look fabulous.

Her New York Times obituary quoted Sharaff as saying:

“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.”

These colors show up repeatedly in her movie work and feel appropriate to settings yet make striking points about the characters.

Her impact in the world of design inspired the Theatre Development Fund Irene Sharaff Award, given annually since 1993 to those:

“whose work embodies those qualities of excellence represented in the lifework of Irene Sharaff: a keen sense of color, a feeling for material and texture, an eye for shape and form, and a sure command of the craft. The designer’s achievement may be in theatre, opera, dance, or film, or, as was true of the work of Ms. Sharaff, for all the performing arts.”

While her public achievements are well-known, Sharaff had a somewhat reclusive private life that she shared with Chinese-American painter and writer Mai-mai Sze. The two women were a devoted couple from the mid-1930s until their deaths within one year of each other. They shared a New York apartment, they traveled together, they socialized together, they even signed letters together. Considering the era they came of age, calling themselves “lesbian” was not popular, and Sharaff, in particular, ran the risk of being caught up in the Hollywood blacklisting of the ’40s and ’50s. The couple donated their papers to the New York Society Library and made a large donation to the Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge, UK, which built a pavilion where the two women’s ashes are buried near.

Let’s enjoy Irene Sharaff’s colorful, fabulous work at the end of Hollywood’s golden age!

 

 

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Judy Garland is adorably sweet and sassy in this turn-of-the-last-century musical.

Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Obligatory ridiculous corset-tightening scene.

Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

“Sharaff designed for her a scarlet velvet ball dress which was the most sophisticated costume that Garland had yet worn on the screen. The consultant from Technicolor initially objected, saying that the dress would overwhelm that worn by Lucille Bremer (playing Garland’s sister) and would anyway look inappropriate in a room with red plush furnishings. It worked dramatically and added an extra poignancy to the following scene, when Garland soothed the sobbing Margaret O’Brien by singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ with a pale turquoise shawl over the dress. Garland, not a great beauty, never looked more attractive.” — Obituary, Independent

Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

In frothy white for the final scene at the World’s Fair.

 

Brigadoon (1954)

Brigadoon (1954)

Most of this musical is set in a fictional 18th-c. Scottish village.

Brigadoon (1954)
Brigadoon (1954)

Irene Sharaff received an Oscar nomination for this film.

 

The King and I (1956)

Deborah Kerr, The King and I (1956)

Sharaff won the Best Costume Design, Color, Oscar, for this musical.

Deborah Kerr, The King and I (1956)

Deborah Kerr recoiled at the metal hoopskirt’s heaviness, until she realized that it gave her gown “a flow they wouldn’t have had with cane.”

Deborah Kerr, The King and I (1956)
Deborah Kerr, The King and I (1956)

Sharaff had also designed the costumes for the original Broadway show of The King & I.

Deborah Kerr, The King and I (1956)

The ballgown without hoops, at auction.

Deborah Kerr, The King and I (1956)

 

Porgy and Bess (1959)

Dorothy Dandrige, Porgy and Bess (1959)

A day before dress rehearsal, a fire destroyed all the costumes and props. The production team only had 6 weeks to recreate everything.

Sammy Davis Jr., Porgy and Bess (1959)
Pearl Bailey, Porgy and Bess (1959)

Irene Sharaff was nominated for an Oscar again.

 

Can-Can (1960)

Can-Can (1960)

This appears to be a silly movie.

Can-Can (1960)

But I’d like to be in on that party.

Can-Can (1960)

Can’t find much info about it, but the work garnered Sharaff another Oscar nod.

 

Cleopatra (1963)

You know it, you love its gold lame!

Sharaff won the Best Costume Design, Color, Oscar, shared with Vittorio Nino Novarese & Renié.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1963

Sharaff created 65 costumes for Elizabeth Taylor alone.

Cleopatra (1963)

 

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Irene Sharaff was costume designer for Elizabeth Taylor again.

Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Danilo Donati was co-designer on the film, & together they were nominated for an Oscar.

 

Funny Girl (1968)

From one diva to another with Barbra Streisand!

Funny Girl (1968)

Supposedly 1910s.

 

Hello, Dolly! (1969)

Sharaff received a Best Costume Design Oscar nomination here.

The dress on its own, without Bab’s ’60s hair & makeup, looks a lot more 1890s.

It reportedly cost over $10,000 to construct this gown because it contains almost a whole pound of 14K gold in the thread and jewel surrounds.

 

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest (1981)

Super cheezoid movie but the costumes are legit — Faye Dunaway looks the part of Joan Crawford.

Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest (1981) Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest (1981)

 

 

What historical costume movies with Irene Sharaff’s designs have you seen?

20 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I loved the red velvet ball gown in Meet Me in At Louis. The film is a favourite of mine and I feel that Judy Garland never looked as beautiful.

    And Funny Face and Dolly gave beautiful costumes.

    Cleopatra although not accurate clothing wise conveyed an Egyptian feel (even the 1960s makeup was only sorta jarring) to my preteen eyes when I first saw it in the late 1960s.

    But my favourite was her costumes for Elizabeth in Shrew. She worked alongside the amazing Danilo Donati.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      When I can get a digital copy of Meet Me in St. Louis, I want to do a deep dive bec. the costumes are really lovely! And it’s one of my fave musicals.

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        That would be great. I have it on DVD somewhere. If I can find it, want to borrow it?

        Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          Aww thanks! But digital is easier for making screencaps — it’s available for rent, so I really just have to schedule it (rentals are usually just 48 hours long, so I need to block out the hours for all those pix :) ).

          Reply
  2. Natalie Ramirez Weyermuller

    The reason I love most of these movies is because of the costumes. Especially Meet Me in St. Louis and Hello Dolly! I had know idea they were the same costume designer.

    Reply
  3. mjsamuelson

    I never knew Irene Sharaff was the costume designer for all these films – each one is a legit on-screen legend, in each case for many reasons, but the costumes sold the show. I adore Meet Me in St. Louis in particular because JUDY, and while part of me has always thought the red dress could have easily overwhelmed her, it’s also clear that Irene took Judy’s figure and general look into account when designing it. It’s stunning, but fairly simple.

    Reply
  4. Roxana

    Ah yes, Brigadoon with the New Look dresses. Somebody must have dreamed a Dior fashion show during her century long sleep.
    Historical accuracy may not have been Sharaff’s strong suit but her costumes were BEAUTIFUL unlike the grotesqueries we are given by the likes of The Spanish Princess. You can forgive a lot if the costume is at least pleasing to the eye.

    Reply
    • Shannon Russell

      And I wish there was documentation of the fabrics used! The movement of Cyd Charisse’s cream dress is divine. So light but also enough weight! Incredible!

      Reply
        • Roxana

          Deborah Kerr’s huge hoops move beautifully. I suspect they are a little to extreme for a governess but they look wonderful

          Reply
  5. ljones1966

    I love the costumes from “Hello Dolly” . . . except for that gold dress. I don’t. It just didn’t appeal to me like the other costumes. Not that impressed with “Brigadoon”. But I love the “King and I” and “Taming of the Shrew” costumes as well.

    Reply
  6. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Have pictures of several of these dresses from an exhibit I saw recently. I will share the albums on the Facebook group!

    Reply
  7. Rebecca

    I love Can Can- and in my later years, wonder how Shirley MacLaines character picks the Frank character over Louis Jordans!

    Reply
  8. MrsC (Maryanne)

    That Babs costume with the peacock overlay is giving me life! It’s like my two favourite stage costumes had a child and that child outshines its parents!! I’m copying!

    Reply
  9. Terry Towels

    I’ve seen them all but Mommie Dearest. I didn’t know one designer did all these shows– the ultimate in glamour.

    The dance scene in The King and I wouldn’t have been anything without that costume– were the metal hoops used throughout? The dresses all seemed to move the same way, so a really romantic choice!

    I also loved the costumes in Taming of the Shrew. Even the rags were glamorous.

    Reply

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