Dressing Olivia: An Interview With Scandal Costume Designer Lyn Paolo

In her fourth season on screen, Olivia Pope’s legacy is already enduring. There’s the giant goblet of wine, the assured strut, and that iconic white Burberry trench. For the clothes, which have taken on something of a side-fanship on their own, we have Emmy-winning costume designer Lyn Paolo to thank.

Pope’s outfits combine power and femininity, strength and seduction, carefreeness and control; they convey to the audience who Olivia Pope is, and what her endgame is, almost as directly as the contemplative, subtle shifts on Kerry Washington’s face. “The wardrobe definitely takes me into being Olivia,” Washington told me recently. “As soon as I put on Olivia’s shoes, I am Olivia. I feel it right down to my feet.” By now, “being Olivia” means a new definition of “power-dressing,” and the serious, stylish suits, coats and pencil skirts have inspired a Scandal-themed collaboration between Paolo, Washington and The Limited. At the line’s launch in New York last month, I spoke to Paolo about the phenomenon that the Scandal looks have become.

Lyn, can you give us some background about creating Olivia’s look for this season? How and why does it differ from previous seasons?

As this season’s looks are still evolving, and as we are only on our early episodes, it’s hard for me to discuss the whole season. But as you saw in our season opener, Olivia had become another person—literally—and is only now being pulled back into her old world. We will explore this evolution using color and line as Olivia becomes the Washington Fixer that we all know and love..

Do you think there’s a lot of Kerry in the clothing? She hinted at being very involved in the creative process of choosing Olivia’s looks.

There is no hint needed, Kerry and I work as a team to create her look every week. I look at the process from a storytelling and costume design point of view, and Kerry comes to the process knowing Olivia Pope better than any other person other than Shonda Rhimes. So although Kerry is heavily involved, it is not Kerry that we discuss. We talk about Olivia, how is she feeling, what is happening to her… we literally talk about Olivia as though she was our best friend.

Olivia is clearly a very strong and in control woman who also allows herself to be vulnerable. Can you talk about designing clothing that represents the various sides of her personality? Do you think women in general have to balance their clothing and strength and femininity?

I think a woman can be strong and feminine at the same time. I see both qualities as being the same thing, that there is strength in being a woman, I believe we have tried to show that Olivia Pope can be both strong and feminine by dressing her in strong and feminine outlines and palettes. I don’t equate femininity with being vulnerable; I see it as a strength and that is, I hope, how my costume design choices for Olivia appear to our audience.

Do you think Scandal has impacted and affected the way that women dress now?

Gosh, that is an interesting question, I don’t know, honestly. But I hope we have helped to define a more feminine way of dressing for the office.

How do you convey Olivia’s power through her clothing? And how can women emulate that?

I hope that with the Scandal for The Limited line we have given women an outline of ideas, that you can dress this way for work and not have to look like the fellas in your office. You can wear white, you can certainly wear gloves with your three-quarter sleeve coats, et cetera. I hope we have helped our Gladiators and women in general to organize their workwear by creating this line.

What are some of the hallmarks of Olivia’s wardrobe that convey her strength and feminist bent? Are there other aspects that convey her more vulnerable side?

As I said earlier, my job as a Costume Designer is to tell the story that Shonda Rhimes has written, so my point of view is always from that side of the filmmaking process: how can I tell a story without being obvious? My tools are color, line, and often other, hidden elements. My job is to make Kerry Washington feel like she is really Olivia Pope, and to convey how Olivia maybe feeling in a given scene.

Kerry mentioned the fact that she only fully feels like Olivia when she puts her shoes on. Which elements of the wardrobe most strongly represent her character to you?

Kerry and I talked early on about Olivia being firmly planted on the Earth—we started to discuss that early on in our process, and shoes are always important. I have had many discussions with actors, and many feel that the shoes are the most important and pivotal element of a costume.

Kerry felt that the Olivia Pope walk had to be strong and sure so we gave Olivia platform soles for height but with a thicker heel for strength. Later in her relationship with Fitz when things were not so easy, Olivia wore stilettos, so her step was slightly less steady.

You brought gloves to the show, and are collaborated on a capsule line with the glovemaker Dorothy Gaspar. In theory, gloves are an old-fashioned accessory that were once de rigueur for a fashionable woman, but now they’ve become more of a statement piece for Olivia.

We introduced the gloves on Olivia after the President had been shot. We had a coat we adored for the scene with Olivia and Fitz, but it had three-quarter sleeves. I had been to see Dorothy Gaspar and I had used her gloves on other shows. The intimacy of Olivia removing a glove to touch Fitz seemed truly sensual! For both Kerry and I, it seemed to be an obvious way to go. I have always loved accessories—gloves, shoes, jewelry. Accessories are, like color and form, the tools in my toolbox. So for me the more items I can use, the more ways I have of telling the story.

Rachel Weingarten is a lifestyle writer and columnist and native of Brooklyn. She’s also a style expert, personal brand consultant, and former celebrity makeup artist. Rachel is the author of three nonfiction books, including Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year (Fall River Press, 2014) For more about Rachel, visit her online hub or tweet her @rachelcw

Image via Getty.

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