From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a weekly column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
For February, we’re talking about costume designer Irene Sharaff. Live in an Alamo market? Get your tickets to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
For Irene Sharaff (1910-1993), the ancient was her agent of inspiration and the modern was her muse. Over forty films, over sixty Broadway shows and fifteen Academy Awards nods, she weaved her legacy in a tapestry of wardrobes.
Although Sharaff’s costumes remained close to their corresponding time periods, she devised her creations with flair far from the conformity of precise realism. She always added a pinch of exaggeration that revealed her ambitious impulses. Realism was not her limitation but the inspiration for the fantastical. Sharaff deeply believed in the marriage of the authentic and the illusory for memorable, eye-popping effect in exquisite Technicolor.
After a decade of designing for the Broadway New York City stages, Sharaff shipped off her talents to the screens of Hollywood in adaptations of her stage work.
Let us start with the ancient in The King and I, where she established contrast to accentuate the cultural clash of the governess Anna’s hoop-skirted British-imperial gown with the Thai silks of the King’s royal court. As for the King of Siam, she insisted that actor Yul Brynner shave his head to exoticize his character’s appearance. Although Brynner initially resisted, he ultimately gave in to the fictional King of Siam’s iconic baldness - now considered the “Yul Brynner Look,” if you will.
She regarded her costumes as featured characters themselves, giving them top billing. When employed on the original Broadway production of The King and I, she schemed, “The first act finale of The King and I will feature Miss Lawrence, Mr. Brynner, and a Pink Satin Ball Gown.” This ambition carried over to the screen of the film adaptation where actress Deborah Kerr sported the puffy hoopskirt and pink ball gown baring her shoulders. Although weighty for Kerr, the enormous skirt permitted “a flow” in the movements for the famous polka “Shall We Dance?” sequence.
In her extensive resume of period musical pieces, Sharaff was quite adept at designing nostalgia for bygone times and hemming up the preservation of history. Sharaff toyed with the turn-of-the-century fashion plates in Meet Me in St. Louis in a world of polka dots and ruffles. In American In Paris, she sewed up ballet-friendly leggings, gowns and shirts with homages to the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Guys and Dolls showcases her gangster panache, ranging from Frank Sinatra’s more eye-catching pin-stripe suit to Marlon Brando’s lax shades of his suit, finding humility in the modest smoothness of Brando’s character.
While on the subject of gangsters, she granted a stark, square-macho urbanism to the apparels of the rivaling Jets and the Sharks gangs in West Side Story. In the book West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, there’s an amusing anecdote recounted by producer Hal Prince from behind the scenes of West Side Story. Confronted with the budget, Prince was skeptical of Sharaff’s exquisite $75 per piece jeans and ordered her to replace her designs with cost-convenient Levi Strauss jeans. Yet, in retrospective, he conceded that he wished he adhered to Sharaff's original intentions for the jean fabric, “dipped, and dyed and beaten and dyed again… forty subtly different shades of blue, vibrating, energetic, creating the effect of realism.” He regretted not utilizing Sharaff’s meticulous aesthetics.
For Sharaff, realism and imagination co-existed within the same fabrics. The charm is in the historical accuracy, but the visual charisma is in the historical embellishment. By lacing in her innovative touches, Irene Sharaff is as timeless as the costumes that dressed the screen icons.