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?
Meet Me in St. Louis arrived at a critical point in Judy Garland’s career. The child star had made over a dozen movies by that point -- almost always, her biographer Gerald Clarke noted, as “the sweet girl next door, everybody’s pal, nobody’s sweetheart.” But the kid was 21 now, and frankly, she was sick of playing teenagers. The heroine of Meet Me in St. Louis seemed to be more of the same: a plucky 17-year-old crushing on the boy next door. But as Garland would realize, Esther Smith wasn’t another typical teen role. She was a girl who quietly became a woman over the course of 113 minutes -- and she had the clothes to prove it.
Those clothes came from Irene Sharaff, an up-and-coming Hollywood costume designer at the time. Sharaff was originally a designer for Broadway and the ballet. She made the leap to film with musicals like Girl Crazy and I Dood It, but Meet Me in St. Louis was the first movie that was wholely hers. She was no longer doing the “fill-in” tasks she had in previous features. She was the costume designer, and it was her job to sell audiences on Esther’s transformation through the “cirlicued, gingerbready, overstuffed” style of the 1900s.
Esther first enters the frame completely covered in blue and white stripes. She’s just returned from playing tennis with her high school friends, and tennis in 1903 necessitated high striped socks, a matching knit cap, white tennis shoes, and a long-sleeved dress complete with a starched white bowtie. It’s era-appropriate workout gear, essentially, and it’s not exactly form-fitting. Esther dresses nothing like her sophisticated older sister Rose, who’s currently playing phone tag with a Yale man in New York. But Rose is an adult old enough to marry, while Esther is still just a girl, one who’s a bit of a tomboy at that. Men don’t notice her the way they notice Rose. John Truett, the object of Esther’s affections, certainly doesn’t. Esther complains to Rose that he still hasn’t glanced her way, even though they live next to each other, and pines for him in “The Boy Next Door,” a teenage torch song if there ever was one. “But he doesn’t know I exist, no matter how I may persist,” Esther wails, as she twirls in her bulky tennis outfit.
Esther is allowed to wear more tailored dresses after that introduction, but Sharaff constantly reminds us that she hasn’t grown up just yet through costume. At the party where she finally meets John, Esther wears a collared blue dress loaded down with a fringe, and spends much of her time paling around with her rebellious little sister Tootie. She’s wearing the same dress later, when she tries to seduce John into a kiss. Her ploy doesn’t work, but he does tell her she has “a mighty strong grip for a girl!”
The wardrobe changes come slowly, as Esther and John’s romance develops. Sharaff tosses Esther some ladylike gloves and lace for “The Trolley Song.” She also adds more definition to Esther’s waistline with beaded and velvet bodices. Esther doesn’t completely ditch her tomboy tendencies along the way -- she even decks John for a (perceived) attack on her sister -- but this all sets the stage for the much-hyped Christmas ball. Esther is going with John, and it may be the last time she sees him for a while. Her family is set to move out of St. Louis after the holiday, so she’s determined to make the formal count.
Cut to Rose literally squeezing Esther into a corset. Esther wails, gasps, and clutches onto the bedpost for dear life. “I feel like the ossified woman in the sideshow,” she quips after the job is done. But despite the protests, Esther has crossed over into a distinctly adult space -- and Judy Garland along with her. Garland had desperately wanted to show audiences she wasn’t that winsome girl whom Mickey Rooney ignored in movie after movie. This retro rite of passage was a good start, but what really pushed her into leading lady territory was the red velvet ballgown Sharaff designed to go over that corset.
The gown was a stunner. Elegant, shapely, and blazingly bright, it was such a bold color that the Technicolor consultant allegedly complained it overwhelmed Garland’s costars. But wasn’t that the point? This was Esther (and Judy’s) arrival as women, and they had to blow the whole room away. It’s no wonder that John proposes right after the dance. But Esther doesn’t just get engaged in that outfit. To underline her complete transition into womanhood, she soothes Tootie later that night with a holiday lullaby, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Esther isn’t just a cool big sister anymore; she’s preparing for motherhood.
Meet Me in St. Louis doesn’t show John and Esther’s wedding, but the frilly white dress Esther wears in the final scene gives a good indication of what that will look like. When the screen fades to black, she is clearly set for her new life as a wife. As for Sharaff, her new life in Hollywood was just getting started. She had many more musicals ahead of her, as well as five Oscar wins, but she had already established a designer trademark with Esther’s becoming ballgown. “If I have a leitmotif, a logo, I suspect it is associated with the colors I prefer,” she once said. “Reds, pinks, oranges.”