“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.”
“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.