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)
“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
The King and I (1956)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Funny Girl (1968)
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Mommie Dearest (1981)
What historical costume movies with Irene Sharaff’s designs have you seen?