Jeanne Button, who was consigned by her parents to taking sewing courses in college that led to an expedient degree in home economics, but who finessed what might have been a humdrum job into a glamorous career as a Broadway costume designer, died on May 8 in Manhattan. She was 86.
The cause was lung cancer, her son, the actor Raphael Sbarge, said.
If Mark Twain was right that clothes make the man, then Ms. Button helped define hundreds of characters in Broadway and Off Broadway plays, operas and films.
In 1967, she won an award from the American Theater Wing (originally called the Joseph Maraham Foundation Award, later the Wing’s Hewes Design Award) for the Broadway production of “MacBird!,” a Shakespearean spoof about the Kennedy assassination in which the Lyndon B. Johnson character was decked out in a chest protector and catcher’s mitt and John F. Kennedy was inaugurated wearing a laurel wreath and trailing black robes.
Ms. Button also compiled the monumental multivolume “A History of Costume in Slides, Notes, and Commentaries,” a 450-page text accompanied by sketches and 1,500 color photographs by her son. Completed in the early 1990s, it traced the evolution of men’s and women’s clothing over 5,000 years, since ancient Egypt.
As a designer, Ms. Button was often lauded for her range and the breadth of her imagination.
Deborah Bell, who teaches costume design at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, wrote in an email that Ms. Button had “understood the practical considerations of costume technology and had a reputation among costume studios as an ideal collaborator — someone who could integrate the visual expectations of the directors, fellow set and lighting designers, and performers as well as the needs of the costume technicians.”
Reviewers for The New York Times praised her “neatly evocative” costumes for “Now Is the Time for All Good Men,” a 1967 Off Broadway musical, and said her ensembles for the Juilliard American Opera…