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.
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.