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.
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.
Awards and nominations
- 1968 Tony Award for Hallelujah, Baby! (nominee)
- 1964 Tony Award for The Girl Who Came to Supper (nominee)
- 1959 Tony Award for Flower Drum Song (nominee)
- 1958 Tony Award for West Side Story (nominee)
- 1957 Tony Award for Shangri-La, Candide, Happy Hunting, and Small War on Murray Hill (nominee)
- 1952 Tony Award for The King and I (winner)
- Howe, Marvine. "Irene Sharaff, Designer, 83, Dies; Costumes Won Tony and Oscars". The New York Times, August 17, 1993
- Hetrick, Adam.Irene Sharaff Awards to Honor Robin Wagner and Lewis Brown" playbill.com, February 22, 2011
- Sharaff Award tdf.org, accessed February 22, 2011
- Sharaff, Irene. Broadway and Hollywood: Costumes Designed by Irene Sharaff, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co (1976)