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?
As a culture, we love when our films transport us to another world. Whether it’s the simplistic beauty of Audrey Hepburn’s black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the specificity of Milla Jovovich’s white fabric placement in The Fifth Element, costuming is as much of a character as that the actor is playing. For over half a century, Irene Sharaff was the costuming genius behind over sixty Broadway productions and forty Hollywood films. Her talent stretched over a variety of film genres, but it was her work with cinematic musicals that truly allowed her to showcase her brilliance.
1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis is often hailed as one of the greatest triumphs of American Movie Musicals. “The Trolley Song” remains a staple of the golden age, and the choreography of Judy Garland making her way in a dark velvet top with a ruffled collar through a crowded trolley of dancing women with brightly-colored dresses and oversized hats remains truly iconic. The juxtaposition presented with the costuming created an eye-catching palate, exaggerated by the gorgeous post-production work by Technicolor, but also served perfectly for a musical. Cinching the waist of Garland’s fitted sleeve top and styling with fluffy skirts allowed her to move and dance freely along the moving trolley. Sharaff’s background in theatre gave her the necessary tools to design costumes that not only looked lovely, but moved with just as much beauty.
Sharaff earned her first Oscar for her work on An American in Paris, only three years after the award had been introduced. Her costuming was an aesthetic dream and allowed Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron to perform what many consider to be the greatest choreography ever captured on film. Her use of color and contrast ensured every frame is eye-catching, even if the iconic choreography was at a halt. Within one year of each other, Sharaff designed the brilliant costumes for both Guys and Dolls and The King and I, with the latter setting the stage for the American obsession with Asian color palates in fashion and interior design. Within a few years, silk became Thailand’s largest export, due all from the success of Sharaff’s designs.
Much of the brilliance of Sharaff’s contributions to costuming have gone unnoticed, but definitely not forgotten. Warm tones and flowy fabrics dressed the Puerto-Rican Sharks while cool tones and tighter fits captured The Jets. These costume choices not only reflected these rival gangs “colors” but also emulated the style of dance. The cool tones and tighter fit of the Jets reflected their tight technique and classic style of performance while the looser, more casual Sharks helped enforce the flair and favor of their more modern dance styles.
Sharaff's film career became less prolific after 1969’s Hello, Dolly! but she is responsible for the iconic costuming of Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie, Dearest. Theatre Development Fund’s Irene Sharaff Awards were founded in 1993 to recognize excellence in costuming, and to serve as an awards ceremony for the costume design community to honor their own. Irene was the first to be awarded the distinction for her remarkable use of color, texture, shape, and movement with her craft. If Emma Stone’s yellow dress in La La Land has shown us anything, it’s that Sharaff’s style is continuing to inspire and set the standard for cinematic musicals even today.