Celebrated designer Irene Sharaff joined the creative team and brought its “journey away from the literal” to life. Our memories of West Side Story are colored by Irene Sharaff’s  t-shirts, gang jackets, and dresses. This exhibit demonstrated how she mixed the requirements of plot, characterization, stage movement, and milieu with her own concepts of color, shape, and texture.

Irene Sharaff (1910 - 1993)
Irene Sharaff is recognized as one of the most celebrated costume designers for Broadway and Hollywood. After training in fashion illustration, she assisted noted designer and costume historian Aline Bernstein. Like her mentor, she was able to combine her knowledge of historical detail into the requirements of each individual project. Praised for her manipulation of color and historic detail, Sharaff costumed over 50 Broadway plays and musicals and received 8 Tony™ nominations, winning for The King and I, as well as dance works for Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. Equally at home in Hollywood, she earned 15 Oscar™ nominations, winning for West Side Story.  She received the Theatre Development Fund’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.  That service organization has also established an annual Irene Sharaff Awards program which honors Lifetime Achievement, a Young Master, and a Master Artisan (costume shop, millinery, shoemaker, etc.) for their contributions to the field. 

“Let the orchestra strike up and the arcs glow with improbable colors, they will accept -- as they do in West Side Story -- made-up language as actual street talk, or ten young dancers in ten different Irene Sharaff costumes of ten different blues, as a juvenile gang wearing actual blue jeans and identical, authentic gang jackets.” Arthur Laurents, “Musical Adventure,”

The New York Times, 03 Nov 1957, p.137

The Broadway program for West Side Story followed common practice by listing costume credits. The costumes were constructed by Brooks-Van Horn, an expert New York large firm. They were labor-intensive, requiring talented artisans with detailing and dying to realize Sharaff’s designs. The jeans were obtained from Levi Strauss & Co. and shirts from Van Heusen, but then were both reinforced for the dance sequences and distressed (dyed or painted) to look used. Petticoats were obtained from Saramae and then dyed. Shoes came from Keds and Capezios.

For Sharaff, as with the whole creative team, West Side Story was more than a modern-dress Romeo and Juliet. She was inspired by portraits from the Italian Renaissance and Shakespeare's own Elizabethan England. You can see some of the styles to which she referred in this engraving. She used tight jeans for hose and gang jackets for the doublets. The color contrast collars, suffs, pocket bindings and flaps allude to embroidery and the puffs of fabric that emerge from slashing. Unlike so many productions, she could not simply dress the Montague/Jets in blues and the Capulets/Sharks in warm tones. She also had to allude to the Sharks' Puerto Rican garment styles and facilitate the choreographed movement. Finally, like all costume artists, she showed her skill at designing to character.

In this image, photographed on the film set of the opening sequence (1961) the Jets (right) attack the Sharks.

"Those [jackets] worn by the gangs in West Side Story were varied by using one color in front, another in the back, with a sharp narrow satin edging, again in contrasting color, so that as the dancers moved, their jackets seems faceted in color. The t-shirt, which up to the fifties was worn solely as underwear, when dyed, gave the dancers the air of trapezists.”

Irene Sharaff, from her 1976 professional biography.

Sharaff provided a "wardrobe" of garments to each gang member to vary their look from scene to scene. This photograph, taken on set for the opening sequence, shows the sweaters worn instead of leisure jackets by some of the Jets.

The color contrast and detailing of the stage costumes -- what Sharaff called "faceting" -- was toned down for the camera. The sweaters and sweater vests resemble both contemporary leisurewear and the vertical pleating that typified Renaissance male and female bodices.

The Jets in their drugstore hangout, performing “Cool,” which in the stage musical, precedes the Rumble. A fan kick shows the width of the skirt on the dancer at far let.
The Jets are dressed in light shirts with narrow ties. The exception is Anybodys, 3rd from right.

Anybodys, the non-gendered Jets wannabe, wears a tunic in wool jersey with a ribbed, soft turtleneck and contrasting sleeves. Her outfit resembles the costumes that Robbins commissioned for his Ballets: USA works.

This rare image of the Jets Girls at leisure reveals that Sharaff adapted the dresses from contemporary summer styles. The tight bodices keep the torsos in control during lifts as if they were wearing tutus. The extra skirt width that they need to dance is gathered or pleated into their waistlines.

The image of the Jets reveals that Sharaff adapted the fashionable shapes (above) by hiding slit seams and capri pants under their fluid overskirts. This tailoring trick provided enough “give” to facilitate the Girls’ movements here and in the Dance at the Gym.

The Jets are wearing their soft jackets with pork pie hats which could be pulled out of shape and accessorized to represent the adults whom they satirized in "Gee, Officer Krupke.". The color image of the 1979-1980 revival makes it easier to see the color contrast in the different sleeve and pocket treatments in the Jets' soft baseball or motorcycle styled jackets. The dark blue jacket at center right has red raglan sleeves but yellow detailing at the seams His kerchief and the police hat show that they playing the social worker and Officer Krupke.

The Jets in the opening scene in the 1979-1980 revival.

The color image clearly shows the detail in the various t-shirt and sweatshirt styles. The costume notes for this revival includes the instructions: “Throw caution to the wind when you pick the color for the zipper.”

This color image of the Jets in the 1985 revival shows the less constructed versions of Sharaff's original designs. The pants look looser, but were probably made from one of the new stretch denims. Anybodys, at far left, is still in a tunic, but has been liberated from wool jersey. The updated costume has surface decoration.

Irene Sharaff’s designs for the film continued her assignment of reds and black for The Sharks’ costumes. Although contemporary styles, they show Sharaff's inspiration from Italian Renaissance clothing. Bernardo’s loose red shirt over tight black t-shirt and trousers resemble a doublet. Juano’s dark t-shirt has lighter diamond-shaped seam inserts that resemble the slashing visible when sleeves were attached to a bodice. They are "functional” but with “a classic beauty.”

This scene from the 1979 revival shows the three lead Shark men in their signature move -- jumping in side arabesque. The footlights lighten their usual dark reds and blacks, but you can recognize Juano’s raglan sleeves and Bernardo’s shirt. The dancer at far right, barely visible in the Mili photograph, wears a color block t-shirt that alludes to Renaissance doublets that emphasized the chest-level yoke.

Anita and the Shark Girls work as dressmakers in a bridal shop, which is later used as the scene for “One Hand, One Heart”. Here, Maria waits to try on the dress that Anita has made for her to wear to the Dance at the Gym. It is white eyelet, with a much softer underskirt than the other characters wear in that scene. In an example of dialogue-driven costuming, the bodice is made loose so that it can be pulled up and pushed down during the debate between them on a suitable neckline height.

The Shark Girls, Elizabeth Taylor, Carmen Gutierrez, Marilyn Cooper, and Carol Lawrence deliver the dress to Maria and perform “I Feel Pretty.”

For this and the Bridal Shop scenes, Sharaff has dressed the dressmakers in capri pants and soft blouses in the style then called "Tropical". Marilyn Cooper (closest to Maria) and Anita in the dress fitting scene, wear the kind of cotton smock then worn by seamstresses and workers in costume shops.

"The Dance at the Gym"
The scene serves the same plot purpose as the Capulet Ball, allowing Maria and Tony to meet and fall in love at first sight.  Robbins and Bernstein provided music and choreography that differentiates the rock-and-rolling Jets and Mambo-ing Sharks.  The Jets couples swinging in the center of the image demonstrate the vast extent of dance movement for which Sharaff designed.  Maria, who has added a Shark-palette sash to her white dress, and Chino are at the left side of the image.

This image of the 1979 revival shows the Dance at the Gym at the brief point that Jets and Sharks share the stage. You can see the Shark double pouf skirt and tube dresses on the left. The Jets dress at the right is a famous example of how labor intensive Sharaff’s designs were. It looks like a simple polka dot or floral pattern but required three separate dye baths -- blue for the background, white to form the circles, and red to add the hearts inside the circles.

After the costumes are designed, fitted, constructed, and delivered, the staff ensures that the performers can move and dance in them. Here, Bernardo and Anita try out one of their extreme Mambo poses, showing her silhouette fully extended on his bent knee, with other Shark dance couples standing by. Sharaff obtained Mexican rebozos for the Shark Girls to use as shawls. They returned in the finale to symbolize mourning.

For the Dance dresses worn by Anita and the Shark Girls, Sharaff designed fitted bodices but, unlike the Jets’ dresses, extended the bodice line over the hips. The skirts were tightly gathered into mid-thigh seams and provided with net underskirts. The color image reveals Anita’s pink dress with 3 rows of mini-ruffles over the skirt seam. The contrasting underskirt with a pleated ruffle and net petticoat are further decorated with narrow bright red piping at the edge of the hem. Margarita (Liane Plane) wears a similar dress in pink.

Anita and Shark girls downstage.

This view provides a great view of the different silhouettes and skirt treatments -- double pouf and multiple tiered skirts, tubes and sheaths with contrasting wide overskirts. Sharaff’s palette ranged from reds, oranges and purples in solid colors, horizontal stripes and floral prints.

By the 1979-1980 revival, Anita (Debbie Allen) and the Shark Girls wore shorter dresses made of stretch fabric blends. The horizontal stripes on the tube dress follow a more complex pattern that reverses on the skirt. For Anita's dress, the seam treatment has been adapted so that a "Vandyke" lace covers the 3 rows of ruffles. It remains a Renaissance allusion since the pointed lace resembles that used on Elizabethan collars.

You can see that the 1985 revival Shark dresses have adapted Sharaff’s silhouettes and palette. Anita (Leilani Jones)'s dress, now in stretch satin, has a shorter bodice and has lost the lace but a more complex smocking detail controls the fringe and wide skirt.

In the Balcony scene, Maria wears a duster robe over her white dress. Tony also wears his costume from the Dance at the Gym, a tan sports jacket with contrasting dark lapels and pocket flaps. His jacket sends a conciliatory message. The color of the jacket relates to Riff's gold palette, but the contrasting lapels and pocket flaps are associated with the Sharks.

As Bernardo, Riff and their gangs set terms for the Rumble, the Sharks, in their dark sports jackets with darker lapels, contrast with the Jets in their white shirts or light t-shirts and soft jackets. Although the garments could all have been worn on the street, Sharaff added detailing to a sweater and a tight vest, which both allude to Renaissance jerkins.

While their gangs are in their color-coded jackets for the nighttime Rumble, Bernardo and Riff have stripped down to t-shirts for their knife fight. Although we associate the show with dancers in t-shirts and jeans, this is one of the few times that Sharaff used uncovered t-shirts. Bernardo’s is light red with a slash under his arm. Riff’s t-shirt is white, the better to show the stage blood wound a few inches above his denim’s waistband.

Lee Becker as Anybodys, with Maria and Tony in the Dream Ballet.

Sharaff designed less structured adaptations of the character costumes for the ballet sequence. The crinolines and net underskirts were eliminated so that all of the dancers had soft garments. These garments were also worn in the final reprise of “Somewhere,” after Tony’s death, with dark rebozo shawls added for the women.

In a controversial decision, the Dream Ballet was eliminated from the film adaptation, which moves quickly towards the tragic ending. The dance sequence can still be seen in most revivals and the West Side Story Suite, staged by Robbins for the New York City Ballet in 1995.

Credits: Story

Text and images curated by Barbara Cohen Stratyner for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Photographs by Fred Fehl and Martha Swope are from the collections of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Original 1957 Scenic Design by Oliver Smith, © Rosaria Sinisi

Quotations from Irene Sharaff are from her Irene Sharaff: Broadway and Hollywood, which was ©1976 by Irene Sharaff and published by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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