Hello, Dolly! Costumes by Irene Sharaff

Photo of Irene Sharaff

Irene Sharaff won five Academy Awards for costume design: An American in Paris, The King and I, West Side Story, Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She was also nominated for five Tony Awards. Sharaff designed West Side Story costumes (both stage and screen versions) as well as Funny Girl—again, costumes for both the stage play and film.

“I see everything in blocks of color,” Sharaff said about her style, “rather like a painting. If I have a leitmotif, a logo, I suspect it is associated with the colors I prefer: reds, pinks, oranges.”

For Hello, Dolly!, Sharaff designed the iconic gown that Dolly Levi wore upon her return to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. (It's said that Streisand requested the color of the gown to be changed from red to gold so as not to compete with the much-circulated publicity photos of Carol Channing—Broadway's Dolly—in a scarlet-colored gown for the big number.)

Sharaff told a newspaper in 1968 about her design process: “First, I sketch the character as I envision him or her from the script. Then, after meeting the star, I will modify the concept to fit the personality of the actor or actress.

“The clothes have to be functional. A star is severely restricted if he or she cannot move freely in a costume. Barbra Streisand, for instance, has to dance in some of her [Dolly] costumes, so they must move differently than do straight costumes.”

She went on to explain that “I'm also very concerned whether or not a costume will clean well, as many gowns are too expensive to duplicate. For instance, when Barbra sings the title song in Hello, Dolly! the dress she wears is the costliest item of clothing in the entire film. It's completely embroidered in gold bullion and horrendously expensive,” she said.

Sharaff Dolly gown

Streisand's shimmering golden gown is said to have cost over $10,000 to construct, and is purported to be the most expensive dress ever made for a film. The 2011 Debbie Reynolds auction of the gown described it like this: “Over ½ pound of 14K gold is in the thread and jewel surrounds (some estimates put it as high as 1 pound) accented over its entire surface by gemstones of numerous types and colors, including Swarovski crystals, creating an extraordinary shimmering rainbow effect when turned in the light.” [The gown, shoes, and headpiece sold at auction in 2011 for $123,000.]

Sharaff on set

Sharaff confirmed that in her 1968 interview when she stated, “The thread used in the Hello, Dolly! dress is made of pure gold. It comes in very fine tubes, is pliable and can be threaded like beads. Because of some technical lighting problems, the pure-gold material was the only way I could achieve the quality that both the director and I wanted.”

Here's an excerpt from a 1969 Life Magazine story about filming Hello, Dolly! that gives a good insight into Sharaff and her ways on the set ...

The stage door opened and Irene Sharaff walked onto the set. Winner of five Academy Awards and a number of Broadway awards for costume design, she was an intense, formidable, chain-smoking woman in late middle age. She was wearing a suede mini-skirt, a foulard blouse and ranch hat, and as [choreographer Michael] Kidd explained the problem with the dress, she sat noncommittally on a stool, puffing on a cigarette.

“Perhaps I'd better see what you're talking about, Michael,” she said when Kidd finished. Her tone was deliberate and slightly patronizing. Kidd motioned for the number to be done again. The music began, and as Barbra Streisand and the dancers circled the set, Irene Sharaff twisted slowly on her stool, following their movements. Again both Barbra Streisand and the dancers tripped on the train of the dress. “See what I mean?” Kidd said when the music stopped. Irene Sharaff ground out her cigarette with the toe of her shoe. “No, Michael, I don't see what the problem is.”

“Barbra trips on it, the dancers step on it.”

“Perhaps if you changed the movements, Michael, the dancers wouldn't step on it,” Irene Sharaff said.

[Producer Ernest] Lehman wiped his brow nervously. Kidd seemed unperturbed. “We've still got Barbra tripping on it.”

“I don't think in the finished dress she will,” Irene Sharaff said. “The material is so heavy, it flows much better than the muslin.”

“There's another problem,” Kidd said patiently. “The dress is so heavy Barbra won't be able to kick at the end of the number.”

“But, Michael,” Irene Sharaff said as if to a child, “is the kick necessary?”

“I think it is, yeah,” Kidd said. He seemed unfazed by Irene Sharaff's recalcitrance.

“The dress will be finished next week, Michael,” Irene Sharaff said. “Why don't we wait until we see it on Barbra before we talk about changes?”

“Sure, Irene,” Kidd said cheerfully. “And if the dress doesn't work, there'll be some changes made.”

It should be noted that Streisand danced in the gold-beaded gown in the film without a train.

Detail of the gold Sharaff gown

Below: The signature purple period dress that Streisand wore in the hat shop and when she sang “Before the Parade Passes By.”

With matching purse, interior bustle, and applied flowers. At auction in 2011, this dress sold for $67,650.00.

Streisand purple dress by Irene Sharaff

Below: The Sharaff-designed dresses worn by E.J. Peaker and Marianne McAndrew in the second half of the movie were both auctioned for a total of $5,500 in 2012.

Minnie and Irene dresses

In the auction, they were described: Light blue period dress with bows, ivory chiffon covering, wool cape with ivory embroidery with matching purse. No label. Designed by Irene Sharaff. Worn by Marianne McAndrew as “Irene Molloy”. Rose satin period dress with dark coral cape, bow accents and matching purse.

Below: Photographs of everyone from the main cast to extras in the parade and Harmonia Gardens scenes were photographed by Fox.

Costume photos

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