Irene Sharaff: A Life in Technicolor Initial Interest
My original idea was to create an exhibit highlighting significant landmarks in movie musical history. This concept proved both grandiose and trite, however, and I sought a new angle. While conducting preliminary research I discovered that many popular film musicals featured costume designs by Irene Sharaff. I was shocked that I had never heard her name despite her long and fruitful career as a costume and set designer for both the Broadway stage and the film industry. I planned to focus on her designs for musicals, but her work throughout her career proved interesting and significant, so the breadth of my project expanded from merely musicals to a retrospective on her life’s work, with particular attention to the works she designed for both stage and screen.
Background on the Artist
Irene Sharaff was born on January 23, 1910. She designed costume and/or set design for upwards of 60 stage and 40 film productions. She was nominated for 9 Tony Awards, won one, was nominated for 16 Academy Awards and garnered 5 Academy wins. Her career began in New York when she designed the set and costumes for the 1932 Civic Repertory production of “Alice in Wonderland.”1 Sharaff designed costumes for ballets, plays, and musicals throughout her career. She began working for film productions in 1943 (Madame Curie) and designed costumes for some of the most famous movie musicals (West Side Story, The King and I). Her last film was Mommie Dearest, in 1981.2
It was a complicated and long search for artifacts related to Sharaff’s work. Since Sharaff worked for ballets, theaters, and studio film productions, her work materials (sketches, costumes, set notes) and spread throughout both coasts. Early searches for materials found Sharaff’s autobiography, Broadway & Hollywood, which provided numerous avenues for research. Unfortunately the book was published in 1976 and did not indicate the storage location of the original illustrations reproduced in the text (until her death it appears Sharaff kept all of her sketches in her Manhattan apartment). The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (herewith abbreviated as NYPL) ended up being the savoir of my research. I learned through their website that curator Barbara Stratyner created an exhibit entitled “Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance.”3 This 2008 exhibit examined women’s contributions to set, lighting, and costume design for the stage. Irene Sharaff’s work was highlighted in this exhibit, which included the gown Constance Towers wore as “Anna” in the stage production of “The King and I.” This was a watershed moment, as it meant that at least one of Sharaff’s original works was preserved. A librarian at the Lincoln Center gave me Stratyner’s contact information, and she kindly provided me with information regarding her research and materials.
My e-mail conversations with Stratyner led to the discovery of three original clothing articles designed by Sharaff for “The King and I”—the gown mentioned above, and two tunics. Stratyner also indicated that the Yale Department of Drama inherited Irene Sharaff’s costume sketches.4 Contact with Mary Volk, Senior Administrative Assistant for the Design Department at the Drama School confirmed that the school possesses original sketches for stage and screen costumes, as well as “various pieces of research and memorabilia.”5 Unfortunately these items are only viewable in person, by appointment, and the online library catalog does not describe the items. Stratyner also indicated that the New York City Ballet possesses original costume renderings from the stage production “Fanfare.”6 NYCB archivist Laura Raucher confirmed that the costume department maintains and keeps some costumes from “Fanfare.”7 She also sent me images of the costumes they possess; unfortunately these images are for research purposes only.8
I also contacted Reference Librarian Anne Coco at the MHL (herewith abbreviated as MHL) in California. Coco provided me with an inventory of original sketches from Sharaff’s designs for film. Items at the library include original sketches for: An American in Paris, Brigadoon, Can-Can, Cleopatra, Hello, Dolly!, The King and I, West Side Story, and Yolanda and the Thief. The library also possesses numerous boxes of “Unidentified costume design drawing by Irene Sharaff.”9 There is no way to determine the contents of these boxes without in-person examination.10
My own research at the NYPL, The Fogelman Social Science and Humanities Library, and online led to the discovery of portraits of the artist, publicity photos for stage and film productions (particularly Cleopatra and “Me and Juliet”) and a large collection of newspaper and magazine clippings that mention Sharaff.11 These clippings were in a series of large folders, disorganized and random in their presentation. Many of the items were not clearly labeled—I had no way of determining their author or source. Research at the Fogelman Library turned up the autobiography and numerous books on the history of film and theater fashion that mention Sharaff’s contributions. Online research resulted in the discovery that multiple costume guilds and organizations award a contemporary costume designer with an award in her name. The Theatre Development Fund, a non-profit organization, presents the “TDF Irene Sharaff Awards” yearly (Sharaff was the first award recipient in 1993).12
The variety and scale of Sharaff’s work is incredible, so an exhibition of her work must be selective in its scope. It would be foolhardy and virtually impossible to create an exhibit that concerned most of her work—an exhibit of that size could fill an entire museum floor. As such, the scope of “A Life in Technicolor” is to highlight certain productions deemed significant, with a focus on Sharaff’s use of color. As curator of this exhibit, my designation of ‘significant’ includes works personally significant to Sharaff, as well as designs of distinct historical merit. In other words, a balance is struck between landmark moments in Sharaff’s own life with designs significant to film and Broadway history. One important aspect of the exhibit includes a juxtaposition of the works she designed for both stage and screen. The scope of the exhibit is, naturally, partly dictated by the availability of materials.
The exhibit is divided into multiple rooms, each with its own focus related to Sharaff’s career (see Appendix A). Visitors approach the exhibit through a doorway with introductory remarks and a box of programs. Each visitor can take a program, which guides them through the exhibit if they chose, or they can freely examine the exhibit on their own. The rooms will include sections on her early works/ballet, film (narrative), movie musicals, and legacy. The movie musicals room includes juxtapositions of her stage-to-screen adaptations. Items displayed include: publicity photos, original clothing designs (sketches and articles), film clips, newspaper article reproductions, and quotes from her biography. Film clips play on large TV screens, with a series of headphones attached for listening. A small section of seating will surround each screen. Any costumes presented are in a protective case to preserve the integrity of the garments.
The following represents a breakdown of the exhibition structure. Descriptions of the items in each room are provided where possible. As visitors enter the exhibit they meet a projected wall, upon which introductory remarks are inscribed. A large image of Sharaff is central this wall, with text about her life and legacy surrounding it. Attached to the wall is a small box with programs that enrich the viewing experience but are not necessary to the museum visitor's experience. Segments of Sharaff’s comments in “Is Fashion an Art?” will be enlarged on this wall.13 Upon reading the introductory remarks participants move clockwise into the first room that represents Sharaff’s earliest works on stage, as well as brief segments on her work for ballets. The far left wall covers her ballet works, while the other walls concern her first works and personal recollections. Artifacts include one Sharaff-designed tutu for “Fanfare,” which the artist donated to Jerome Robbins and was later gifted to the NYPL.14 Original sketches for “Fanfare” are available from The Harvard Theatre Collection.15 The wall concerned with her original works will include recollections from her first job as assistant to Aline Bernstein, and then her first professional job as set and costume designer for “Alice in Wonderland.”
The next room focuses on her non-musical film work, with attention to costume designs for Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sharaff’s last film, Mommie Dearest.16 Displays include newspaper articles and original publicity photographs concerning the infamous production of Cleopatra, as well as some of Sharaff’s original design illustrations (available from the MHL.) Sharaff’s own recollections of working with Elizabeth Taylor are highlighted.
The largest room of the exhibit (which could potentially expand to two rooms) is dedicated to Sharaff’s work for stage and film musicals. Great attention is paid to the stage and film productions of The King and I, West Side Story, and Funny Girl.17 Original illustrations for “The King and I” and “West Side Story” are exhibited (from the MHL and Yale), as well as two tunics from “The King and I” stage version, and the gown Constance Towers wore for the “Shall We Dance” number.18 Other original illustrations on view include designs for the An American in Paris ballet, Brigadoon, Can-Can, Hello, Dolly!, and Yolanda and the Thief (available from the MHL).
The final room of the exhibit provides the viewer with an examination of Sharaff’s legacy. The many awards she received, as well as the number of awards currently given in her name, are mentioned. Her obituary from the New York Times is also posted.19 Discussion considers her influence on costume and set design, with focus on her designs’ effects on later incarnations of the musicals. The viewer should leave the exhibit understanding the scope of Sharaff’s contribution to stage and screen design.20
Images: Two photographs of Sharaff (see appendix B)
Headline: Irene Sharaff: A Life in Technicolor
Large text below images:
Irene Sharaff designed sets and/or costumes for 60 stage productions and 40 films. Equally in demand on Broadway and in Hollywood, her career spanned almost five decades. She earned 9 Tony and 15 Academy Award nominations, and won one Tony and five Academy Awards.
Sharaff designed costumes for some of the most memorable productions on stage and screen, including West Side Story, The King and I, and the infamous Cleopatra. Whether she was designing sets and costumes for a ballet, musical, or historical drama, Sharaff’s work featured what the Metroplitan Museum of Art called “an exacting and delicious sense of color, historical detail, and feminine ways and means.”21
Sharaff emphasized the importance of color in her designs. In her autobiography she remarked: “color has always been important to me…people and situations are symbolized for me by colors; numerals and words have color.” Her designs reflect this interest in color, in the stark difference between the color palettes of the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story, or the muted tones of Anna contrasted with the vibrant silks of the king in The King and I.22
Quote enlarged on wall: “As much as art, fashion is a manifestation of the times—of its psychological, social, political, visual existence.”23
Early Stage/Ballet Room
“Stage” Wall Headline: “Beginning with Aline and Alice”
Images Wall A: (See Appendix C) Civic Repertory Theatre, July 12, 1936 by Berenice Abbott. Aline Bernstein, from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at NYPL. “The Cherry Orchard” at the Civic Repertory Theatre; by Vandamm Studio, 1928, from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at NYPL.
Text Wall A: Sharaff’s career began when famed actress Eva La Gellienne saw her portfolio. La Gellienne was also the owner of New York’s The Civic Repertory Theatre, located on 14th St and 6th Ave. The actress organized an interview between Sharaff and the Civic’s new art director, Aline Bernstein. Sharaff worked for Bernstein for three years, contributing to the production of approximately 15 plays. In her autobiography, Broadway & Hollywood, Sharaff looks back most fondly on the theatre’s production of Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” starring Alla Nazimova. Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 hit the Civic hard, and Le Gallienne closed the theatre. Sharaff used the time off to travel around Europe.24
Images Wall B: Sketch by Irene Sharaff, The Mad Hatter for “Alice in Wonderland,” 1932 Civic Repertory Theatre production. Illustration by John Tenniel, The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865.
Newspaper Reproductions Wall B: Atkinson, Brooks, “Alice in Fourteenth Street.” New York Times, pg X1, 25 Dec 1932. Atkinson, Brooks, “Eva and ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ New York Times, pg 18, 12 Dec 1932. Unknown Author, “‘Liliom’ to Reopen Civic Repertory.” New York Times, pg 20, 19 Jul 1932.
Text Wall B: Sharaff was living in Paris when Eva Le Gallienne arrived to announce the planned reopening of the Civic. Le Gallienne asked Sharaff to design the scenery and costumes for the theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland. Sharaff’s task was to translate the original John Tenniel illustrations into the set and stage of the Civic. To mimic Tenniel’s style, Sharaff used “white sailcloth as the basic fabric for both the scenery and the costumes, darwing on it brushstrokes similar in form and application to the fine cross-hatched pen lines of Tenniel’s technique.” She also designed the set, which mimicked the black and white chiarascuro effect of Tenniel’s illustrations.25 As Brooks Atkinson noted for the New York Times, Sharaff “has reverenced the illustrations, adding to them colors that give the production a disarmingly lovely appearance.” Unfortunately, though Alice in Wonderland was incredibly successful, the Civic was forced to close again.
Images Wall C: Original sketches for “Fanfare” from the Harvard Theatre Collection.26 Original sketches for “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet in “On Your Toes.”27
Text Enlarged on Wall C: “The emotional impact of color in costumes designed for stage or screen is direct and immediate. It can help detract from a scene, can set the tone of an entire production number, can add to a characterization by actor or actress, and give that extra zip to a dancer.”28
Item on display Wall C: Organza accessory designed by Irene Sharaff for “Fanfare.”29
Wall C Text: Sharaff’s design talents were utilized for many ballet sequences on stage and screen. She “created scenery and costumes for the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, the New York City Ballet, and the Royal Ballet in London.”30 She designed the costumes for the George Balanchine-choreographed ballet sequences in the 1936 Rodgers & Hart vehicle “On Your Toes.”31 As Sharaff notes in her autobiography, “On Your Toes” was one of the first stage musicals to integrate ballet. She also designed costumes for both the 1953 and 1976 productions of “Fanfare” for the New York City Ballet.
Images Walls A & B: (See Appendix D). Publicity stills from Cleopatra (NYPL), as well as original sketches (MHL).
Text Wall A: Cleopatra is one of the most costly and infamous films in Hollywood history. The notoriously cursed production suffered from costly delays, the near-death of its female lead (Elizabeth Taylor), and multiple changes in director, producer, and cast. When Joseph Mankiewicz took over direction Sharaff was asked to redesign the costumes for Cleopatra. Sharaff based her designs on Egyptian sculpture and tomb paintings.32 Perhaps the most famous article of clothing Sharaff ever designed is the gold gown Cleopatra dons during her entrance to Rome. The gown was constructed of gold lame, lined with gold bullion, at a cost of $2,000.
Text Wall B: Sharaff was criticized for her designs, however, as many of the gowns in Cleopatra feature low-slung necklines. She once smartly remarked, “All this talk about low-plunged necklines…Egypt B.C. had a different concept of woman than exists today. The body was considered something to be proud of. And in addition, Egypt is a very hot country. Besides, Elizabeth is beautiful. Why shouldn’t she be shown? I designed for a queen, remember, not for a little secretary.”33 Whatever the press remarked, Elizabeth Taylor was exceedingly pleased with the designs, as she had Sharaff design the wedding gown for her highly publicized marriage to co-star Richard Burton.
Images Walls C & D: Stills from the film.34
Newspaper Reproductions Wall C: Advertisement for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, New York Times, 1 Jul 1966. Pg 39.
Text Wall C: Sharaff worked with Taylor and Burton on multiple films, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Adapted from the Edward Albee play, the work tells the story of two unhappily married couples at a dinner party. As the “party” progresses and wine flows, the couples become increasingly antagonistic. The serious tone and realistic setting of the film called for equally muted and realistic costume designs.
Text Wall D: The four costumes Sharaff designed for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were a far cry from the sixty costume changes for Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. The gold lame dresses were replaced with drab, unflattering clothing meant to suggest that Taylor’s character “Martha” was a “slob, her clothes so commonplace that at a glance she was one with the disorder, sloppiness, and indifference that reigned in her house.”35 To create this slovenly look, Sharaff dressed Taylor in suede, which soaks up light and appears bulky. Clothing was cut to fit poorly, emphasizing the disorder of Martha’s life.
Movie/Stage Musical Room
Images Wall A: (See Appendix E): “Me and Juliet” performance photograph by Bob Golby; featuring Joan McCracken, Bob Fortier, Gwen Harmon, Arthur Maxwell. Svetlana McLee as “Susie” in “Me and Juliet.”
Displays Wall A: Dress from “Sweet Charity” (still locating; on display for “Curtain Call” at NYPL.)
Text Wall A: Sharaff is best known for her work on stage and screen musicals. Three of her five Academy Awards were for her work on the movie musicals An American in Paris (1951), The King and I (1956), and West Side Story (1961). The items displayed here are from two lesser-known works, “Me and Juliet,” and “Sweet Charity”. Despite a score by Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Me and Juliet” ran for less than 400 days. “Sweet Charity” featured choreograpy by Bob Fosse, and book by Neil Simon. Fosse also choreographed the film version four years later, but Edith Head designed the costumes.
Images Wall B: Original sketches from An American in Paris (MHL). Reproductions of French works by artists Manet, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Text Wall B: Sharaff earned an Academy Award for her designs for An American in Paris, despite the fact that she only designed scenery and costumes for one ballet sequence. The large sequence was a ballet featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron—as well as 500 dancers! Sharaff incorporated the visual styles of some of France’s most famous painters into the costumes, with each movement of the ballet highlighting the work of a different artist: Manet, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Images Wall C: Publicity still of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner from The King and I and publicity still of Constance Towers from stage version of “The King and I” (from NYPL). Original sketches by Irene Sharaff for The King and I and West Side Story (MHL).
Display Wall C: Dress worn by Constance Towers for the “Shall We Dance” number and two tunics from “The King and I” (locating from rental house in Floria, per email with Stratyner.)
Text Wall C: Sharaff designed for both the stage and film versions of The King and I and West Side Story. These beloved works illustrate Sharaff’s use of color and fabric to represent differences in status and nationality. The King and I contrasts “the exotic clothes worn by the King, which were in heavy Thai silk, and the sober and modest attire of the English governess.”36 For West Side Story, the Sharks were dressed in “sharp purple, pink-violet, blood red, and black; for the Jets…muted indigo blues, musty yellows, and ochre.”37
Images Wall D: Publicity shots from West Side Story, original sketches for Brigadoon, Can-Can, Hello, Dolly!, Yolanda and the Thief (MHL).
Wall D Embossed Text: “The interesting thing about my career in Hollywood is that I got in on the crest of the musicals. It was a wonderful, extraordinary blossoming forth.”38
Wall D Text: Designs made for the stage, unfortunately, do not always translate to screen. Fabrics and colors behave differently under stage lighting and on screen. Even if “the colors planned for the costumes are appropriate to the character, scene, and period, one has to keep in mind how colors behave on film.”39 Certain colors look washed out on film, though in person they look perfectly vibrant. Sharaff learned by “trial and error” which colors and patterns to avoid when costuming for the screen.40 Designers usually have more time to design costumes for the screen, which is fortunate because film costumes are subject to the scrutiny of close-ups and the permanence of the film image.
Items on Display Walls A and B (See Appendix F.) Irene Sharaff Paper dolls, PAPER DOLL STUDIO Magazine, Issue #92 2008-The Broadway Issue. Paper Dolls and article (“Irene Sharaff”) by David Wolfe. List of awards for which she was nominated and awarded. List of awards named in her honor.
Newspaper Reproductions Walls A and B: Howe, Marvine. “Irene Sharaff, Designer, 83, Dies…”, New York Times, 17 Aug 1993. Unknown Author. “Irene Sharaff, Designer,” New York Times 9 Mar 1941.
Embossed Wall Text B: “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.”41
Text Wall B: The beauty and thoughtfulness of Sharaff’s costumes is evident by the number of awards she received. It is a testament to her enduring influence on the worlds of fashion and costume that multiple costume design awards now bear her name. The Theatre Development Fund, for example, annually awards a Lifetime Achievement Award to a costume designer who “over the course of his or her career, has achieved great distinction and whose work embodies those qualities of excellence represented in the life work 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 the areas of the theatre, opera, dance, or film, or, as was true of the work of Ms. Sharaff, for all the performing arts.”42
Embossed Text Wall C: List of all of the productions she designed for, stacked end to end to cover the wall.
Embossed Text Wall D: “There is…no end to the experience of color, texture, form… I have been lucky, too, to have participated since the thirties in some great productions and to have been part of the very great changes that have happened in entertainment.”43
1 Sharaff, Irene. Broadway & Hollywood. (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.), 1976, 6-7.
2 Madame Curie, director Mervyn LeRoy, 1943. West Side Story, directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961. The King and I, director Walter Lang, 1956. Mommie Dearest, director Frank Perry, 1981.
3 “Ms.-en-Scéne!—Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance.” . 8 Oct 2008. Accessed 6 Oct 2009.
4 Email to the author from Stratyner, Barbara: “Curtain Call Curatorship,” 3 Dec 2009.
5 Email to the author from Volk, Mary: “Irene Sharaff Research Inquiry,” 5 Dec 2009.
6 Stratyner, email.
7 Email to the author from Raucher, Laura: “Irene Sharaff Inquiry.” 3 Dec 2009.
8 Email to the author from Raucher, Laura: “Irene Sharaff Inquiry.” 7 Dec 2009.
9 Email to the author from Coco, Anne. “Graphic Arts Selections: (Margaret Herrick Library).” 4 Dec 2009.
10 An American in Paris, director Vincente Minnelli, 1951. Brigadoon, director Vincente Minnelli, 1954. Can-Can, director Walter Lang, 1960. Cleopatra, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963. Hello, Dolly!, directed by Gene Kelly, 1969. Yolandaand the Thief, directed by Vincente Minnelli, 1946.
11 “Me and Juliet,” 1953 production.
12 “TDF Irene Sharaff Awards,” Theatre Development Fund. . Accessed 6 Dec 2009.
13 Sharaff, Irene, et al. “Is Fashion an Art?” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 26:3 (Nov, 1967).
14 Stratyner, 3 Dec 2009.
15 Email to the author from Wilson, Frederic Woodbridge, curator for The Harvard Theatre Collection. 10 Nov 2009.
16 Cleopatra, director Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, director Mike Nichols, 1966. Mommie Dearest, director Frank Perry, 1981.
17 “The King and I”, 1951 stage production; The King and I, director Walter Lang, 1956. “West Side Story”, 1957 stage production; West Side Story, directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. “Funny Girl”, 1964 stage production; Funny Girl, director William Wyler, 1968.
18 Available via a rental house in Florida, location on-going. (See email to author from Stratyner.)
19 Howe, Marvine. “Irene Sharaff, Designer, 83, Dies; Costumes Won Tony and Oscars.” New York Times, 17 Aug 1993.
20 The exhibit could be enriched by a film series screening Sharaff’s Hollywood work.
21 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design. Printed by Office Service for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974.
22 Sharaff, 46.
23 Sharaff “Fashion…Art?” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol 26, No 3, Nov 1967.
24 Sharaff, 8-14.
25 Sharaff, 18.
26 Email to the author from Wilson, Fredric Woodbridge, 10 Nov 2009.
27 Images from “On Your Toes” featured in Sharaff, 34-5. Still searching for their current location.
28 Sharaff, 46.
29 NYCB archive, Fanfare - Control #780. Description: Off-white organza pleated, stand-out ruffle w/ pearls, backed in satin. Worn by Ellen Shire (corps 1960-1965). Email to the author from Raucher, Laura. 7 Dec 2009.
30 The New York Society Library website, . The Sharaff/Sze Collection.
31 Sharaff, 28-30.
32 Sharaff, 106.
33 Author unknown. “Close-Up: Costume Designer.” NY Post, 28 Jun 1963.
34 Not currently located by author.
35 Sharaff, 116-117.
36 Ed. Engelmeier, Regine and Peter W. Fashion in Film. (Munich: Prestel-Verlag), 1990.
37 Sharaff, 100.
38 Sharaff, 127.
39 Sharaff, 48.
40 Brody, Meredith. “Costume Drama with Meredith Brody.” Aug 1989.
41 Wolfe, David. “Irene Sharaff.” Paper Doll Studio Magazine. Issue 92: The Broadway Issue, 2008. < www.paperdollywood.com/articles/irene_sharaff.html>.