The hit political thriller “Scandal” has attracted a fervid following of women lawyers as much for the glamorous clothes of its protagonist, high-powered crisis-fixer Olivia Pope, as for the racy drama and soapy intrigue.
The TV show’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo, drew an enthusiastic crowd of about 80 sharply dressed lawyers for a Schiff Hardin women’s networking event last week at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Digital Media Center.
Women watch the show, which begins its third season Oct. 3 on ABC, to see what Pope, played by Kerry Washington, will be wearing as she rushes about Washington’s corridors of power in high heels and chic pantsuits, successfully negotiating hush-hush political crises and conservative Beltway fashion.
Law and fashion can seem like oxymorons, so Pope has become an icon for professional women who want to look great while succeeding at demanding jobs. The former White House communications director has become the go-to fixer for D.C.’s political elite, while carrying on a complicated personal life that includes an affair with the president.
Paolo shared her costuming insights for professional women in a conversation with Schiff Hardin partner Leah Ward Sears, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and an ardent fan of the show.
Sears looked chic in a bottle-green sheath dress with cap sleeves and a just-below-the-knee skirt. A striking yet modest cutout below the jewel neckline and a sparkly gold brooch of the scales of justice added interest. The effect was tailored yet feminine, reminiscent of Olivia Pope’s look on the show.
Paolo said a line from the pilot script—that Pope and her team at crisis-management firm Pope & Associates are “gladiators in suits”—gave her the idea for how they should be dressed.
“All of the characters in ‘Scandal’ are often closed off emotionally, so it’s important to me that the suits are very tailored. The suits become their armor,” said Paolo, who also designed the costumes for two other popular TV shows, “ER” and “The West Wing.”
That was the vision Paolo said she pitched to the show’s creator and scriptwriter, Shonda Rhimes.
Paolo often dresses her leading lady in white to emphasize Pope’s white knight role, but she said it was a major battle with the production people to make that happen.
“It’s not done in film or on television and it’s a huge problem for the lighting department,” she said, explaining that Pope’s white pantsuits and coats are high-contrast, so they pop visually compared to the darker tones of the other characters’ clothing.
Pope is a petite African-American woman holding her own with the much larger, mostly white men populating “Scandal.” She cuts a commanding figure in tailored pantsuits and heels, but the effect is feminine, even ethereal, because of Paolo’s use of soft colors and textures.
Pope’s wardrobe relies on lots of draped shawl collars, silk and chiffon blouses, sweaters and stretchy bias-cut fabrics that soften her edge. The cut and texture of the fabrics are what provide interest—not prints, which Paolo avoids. The colors are light and neutral—a lot of gray or white suits and jackets, punctuated with pale pastel blouses in pink, blue and cream.
Paolo said she initially envisioned Pope in skirts, to contrast her femininity with her power, but Washington wanted the character to wear trousers.
So Pope became “a gladiator in pants,” she said. The character wears skirts only in flashbacks to an earlier, more innocent period in her life.
Paolo said the neutral palette means Pope could pull any blouse and suit out of her voluminous closet and they would go together—important for a busy, crisis-oriented professional woman.
The costume designer advised the professional women in the audience to do the same. Paolo said she sticks to black and white in her own wardrobe to make it easier to get dressed in the morning, because she has a rather hectic life in Los Angeles, with two children and a dog plus a demanding job.
“I don’t have time to be a fashionista,” she said.
The actors on “Scandal” wear a lot of clothes to keep up with the show’s fast-moving plot twists. Washington had 27 costume changes in its pilot episode, Paolo said. That means she has to be highly organized in dressing the actress, with racks of clothes ready each week for a brief meeting with Washington for final approval and fittings.
Paolo counseled her audience to keep things simple and organized in their quest to look chic yet professional without too much hassle. She recommended purging one’s closet of anything that has not been worn in more than a year.
“Do not be a slave to fashion,” she said, advising women to stay away from styles that are overly feminine, frilly or lacy. Prints also can be distracting, she added.
Costume design is not about fashion, Paolo said. “It’s about telling the story with clothing.” Lawyers and other professional women do the same in choosing how to dress for the workplace.
Pay attention to fit, not trends, she said. Wear things that suit one’s particular body type—and get clothes tailored so they fit properly.
Paolo said she has little time for shopping, but when she does, she goes everywhere from Target to Bergdorf Goodman.
In response to a query from Sears about age-appropriate choices, Paolo responded that fitness matters more than age in deciding what to wear. “Women are looking amazing for longer, so the old rules don’t tie us down,” she said.
Old dicta, such as staying away from cap sleeves and short skirts after a certain age, have gone by the wayside, Paolo said.
Keeping things simple, Paolo said, means packing no more than three pairs of shoes when traveling—heels, flats and sneakers. This advice prompted spontaneous applause and laughter.
One lawyer in the audience later confessed to bringing an extra suitcase when traveling, just for her shoes.