Partner Mai-Mai Sze, buried together
116 E 66th St, New York, NY 10065
The Art Students League of New York, 215 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019
Lucy Cavendish College Library, Cambridge CB3 0BU, UK
Irene Sharaff (January 23, 1910 – August 10, 1993) was an American costume designer for stage and screen. Her work earned her five Academy Awards and a Tony Award. The work of Broadway's gay and lesbian artistic community went on display in 2007 when the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation Gallery presents "StageStruck: The Magic of Theatre Design." The exhibit was conceived to highlight the achievements of gay and lesbian designers who work in conjunction with fellow gay and lesbian playwrights, directors, choreographers and composers. Original sketches, props, set pieces and models — some from private collections — represent the work of over 60 designers, including Irene Sharaff.
Sharaff was born in Boston and studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, the Art Students League of New York, and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.
After working as a fashion illustrator in her youth, Sharaff turned to set and costume design. Her debut production was the 1931 Broadway production of Alice in Wonderland, starring Eva Le Gallienne. Her use of silks from Thailand for The King and I (1951) created a trend in fashion and interior decoration.
In 1951, Walter Plunkett shared an Oscar with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff for An American in Paris. Satch LaValley would remember Walter uncharacteristically grumbling, "I can't believe I have to share one-third of this damn Oscar with that son-of-a-bitch Orry-Kelly." As edgy as Plunkett was easygoing, Orry was opinionated, headstrong alcoholic who could dissolve his friends into laughter and shoot down his foes with one well-timed barb. "Orry-Kelly was completely unpredictable," said his friend Robert Shaw. "One minute he was sweet and kind, making you laugh. The next he was sharpening his claws against you." The difference in style among designers can be best seen in An American in Paris. Irene Sharaff's costumes in the long ballet sequence are loud, vibrant, in many shapes and colors. Walter Plunkett's designs for the Beaux Art ball are over the top, with capes and diamond shapes everywhere. But the rest of the film, designed by Orry-Kelly, is a marvel of simple, elegant lines. Nina Foch's one-shoulder-bared, strapless white gown is stunning.
by Arnold Genthe
116 E 66th St
Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge
Sharaff's work was featured in the movies West Side Story (Academy Award, 1961), Cleopatra (Academy Award, 1963), Meet Me in St. Louis, Hello, Dolly!, Mommie Dearest, The Other Side of Midnight, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Academy Award, 1966), Guys and Dolls, The Best Years of Our Lives, The King and I (Academy Award, 1956), An American in Paris (Academy Award, 1951), Funny Girl and Porgy and Bess.
She also designed sets and costumes for American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and contributed illustrations to fashion magazine's such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Among her Broadway design credits are Idiot's Delight, Lady in the Dark, As Thousands Cheer, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Flower Drum Song, and Jerome Robbins' Broadway.
The TDF/Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award was named for Sharaff. She was its first recipient in 1993. The award is now bestowed annually to a costume designer who, over the course of his or her career, has achieved great distinction and mastery of the art in theatre, film, opera or dance.
Irene Sharaff died in New York City of congestive heart failure, complicated by emphysema, at the age of 83. Sharaff bequeathed her collection of books, along with that of her partner, Mai-Mai Sze, to the New York Society Library.
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