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Costume Queen

A look back at Irene Sharaff, who used her artist’s eye to design costumes on Broadway and in Hollywood; she won five Oscars, including one for her work on 1963’s ”Cleopatra”

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“You can acquire chic and elegance,” Irene Sharaff once said, “but style itself is a rare thing.” With her hair swept back magnificently into her trademark bun and her uncompromising eyes coated in severe black eyeliner, Sharaff had style in spades. Over the course of her more-than-half-a-century-long career, she earned 16 Oscar nominations — winning for An American in Paris, The King and I, West Side Story, Cleopatra, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — and one Tony Award; designed nearly 20 ballets for some of the world’s leading dance companies; and, by the way, created the sunflower yellow dress Elizabeth Taylor wore for her first wedding to Richard Burton.

Sharaff inspired many of today’s most acclaimed costume designers. “I grew up worshipping her work,” says Daniel Orlandi (Saving Mr. Banks). Remembers William Ivey Long, winner of the 2013 Tony for Broadway’s Cinderella, “I met Ms. Sharaff when I was a student at the drama school in New Haven, and she was just what I wanted her to be. Some people disappoint, Irene Sharaff grew. She was authoritative, commanding. ‘No, [I want] this color — the edge of this fabric where it has been faded by the sun on the bolt.’ I actually heard her say that! I thought, ‘Oh, this is my wildest dream, to ever be able to say something like that.'”

Sharaff, who died in 1993 at the age of 83, was a magician with color — think Deborah Kerr swathed in champagne silk duchesse satin in The King and I; the Sharks of West Side Story in sexy shades of cherry red, pink, and purple; or the springtime lavender of Barbra Streisand’s “Before the Parade Passes By” dress in Hello, Dolly! A commander of aesthetic who knew what she wanted and was always right, Sharaff was the one who advised Yul Brynner to shave his head for his role in the 1951 Broadway production of The King and I, a look he would keep for the rest of his career. She often designed costumes for both the stage and movie adaptations of the same work, and her breadth and versatility never failed to astound. It’s hard to believe that the artist behind the outré glamour of Cleopatra also captured the fetid suburban drabness of Virginia Woolf.

Sharaff could be cutting, deliciously so. On the set of Mommie Dearest, she famously said of star Faye Dunaway: “Yes, you may enter Miss Dunaway’s dressing room, but first you must throw a raw steak in — to divert her attention.”

“However funny or stern or bitchy she was about [actors], you can see that there is a true love of the performer,” says two-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin, who just earned two more nods — in the categories of costume and production design — for The Great Gatsby. “Irene Sharaff always honored them in her work.”

Cleopatra, 1963
“Those were costumes, as they say, with a capital K,” declares William Ivey Long. “It was a big glamour film — everything Elizabeth Taylor wore could have been worn to the movie opening. They were couture gowns, totally over-the-top, totally appropriate for Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor.” Sharaff, Renie Conley, and Vittorio Nino Novarese designed a staggering 26,000 costumes for the epic film, including 8,000 pairs of shoes distributed among the legion of extras. Taylor made a then-record 65 wardrobe changes. The movie ushered in new style and beauty trends like snake-motif jewelry and dramatic “Cleopatra Eye” makeup, and the wardrobe trio received the Oscar for their handiwork in 1964.

A Star is Born, 1954
“First, I sketch the character as I envision him or her from the script,” Sharaff once said. “Then, after meeting with the star, I will modify the concept to fit the personality of the actor or actress.” Ten years after outfitting Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis, she created costumes for the “Born in a Trunk” number in Garland’s comeback. “In one year, she was nominated for an Oscar for both Brigadoon and A Star Is Born,” marvels Catherine Martin.

An American in Paris, 1951
Sharaff won her first Oscar for the scenery and costumes in the 17-minute-long ballet sequence of the musical, which starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. “She could mix incredible colors. They were rich and they were all sort of overdyed, and it all looked right,” says Daniel Orlandi. Long agrees: “We saw not only those beautiful colors of Paris, we saw the way she took it into that nightmare [scene] around the fountain.”

The King And I, 1956
Sharaff’s use of sumptuous fabrics in the stage and movie versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (both starring Yul Brynner) sparked a boom in silk sales. “I stopped dead in my tracks at the ‘Shall We Dance’ scene, with that champagne dress that Kerr wears,” says Long. “That was the largest dress I’d ever seen, even bigger than [the dresses in] Gone With the Wind. It was magnificent, romantic storytelling.”

Hello, Dolly!, 1969
“She designed so many different kinds of projects, from musicals to serious dramas, but if I had to pick a favorite [costume], I’d have to say it’s Barbra Streisand’s lavender dress in Hello, Dolly!,” says Orlandi. “It’s so beautiful, and it has these little ruffles sewn on it in a latticework pattern, but every one of them is dyed slightly different. It has so much texture and depth.” In 2011 the dress sold for more than $67,000 at auction.

West Side Story, 1961
Sharaff viewed the world in great blocks of color. “If I have a leitmotif, a logo, I suspect it is associated with the colors I prefer — reds, pinks, oranges,” she once said. For West Side Story, the designer outfitted the Sharks (and their girlfriends) in bold, fiery colors, and rival gang the Jets in cool neutrals. Sharaff earned a Tony nomination for the 1957 stage production, then won an Oscar for the film four years later.

Mommie Dearest, 1981
Faye Dunaway transformed into a creepy, fearsome image of Joan Crawford with the help of more than 57 Sharaff-designed costumes. “Faye Dunaway, how incredible did she look?” says Martin. “Whatever complicated relationship she and Sharaff may have had, she was just so perfectly costumed.” Fortunately, Paramount Pictures realized that the wardrobe played an important role in telling a story that spanned 38 years. “This is a $9.4 million picture, and the money is in the costumes and the sets,” producer Frank Yablans told Roger Ebert.

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