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Power Garments Defined the Political Class in ABC’s ‘Scandal’

In ABC’s “Scandal,” which airs its final episode April 19, some of the best-tailored and most conservatively dressed people on TV engage in some of TV’s most outrageous behavior as they navigate the charged political climate of the nation’s capital.

Credit for the show’s reserved garments, which contrast sharply with the personalities who wear them, goes to costume designer Lyn Paolo, a go-to artisan for showrunner Shonda Rhimes. (The two have also collaborated on “How to Get Away With Murder” and “For the People.”)

From “Scandal” star Kerry Washington’s initial fitting with Paolo, lead actress and costume designer were on the same page: Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, would be a glass ceiling-shattering heroine from the moment she opened her closet. She would be successful enough to afford Armani, Prada and, in a nod to Paolo’s native England, a Burberry trench.

Also, Olivia would wear white because she’d stand for justice, even if her motives were sometimes questionable — and even if it made the show’s DPs grimace because the color is hard to light.

Her shoes would be platform heels — not stilettos — because they’d give her height and the stability to power walk. And she would also wear pants, albeit not as a political statement.

Scripts came to incorporate such comments as “Whatever Lyn says” or “The most stunning white coat you’ve ever seen.” The other characters also look elegant, unless it’s a conscious story choice for them to appear otherwise. (Bellamy Young’s character was temporarily branded “Smelly Mellie” while she was grieving her murdered son. Bathrobes were involved.) Paolo also has a penchant for expensive ties.

Actor Joshua Malina has felt the sartorial love as well. “I was pleased that as David Rosen extorted his way to attorney general I’m apparently spending more money on [clothing],” Malina told Variety during the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour. “Lyn is very good at helping the story of the character move through the clothes. Anything that doesn’t feel right or doesn’t feel comfortable, she takes note of.”

Some of Paolo’s favorite costume choices have been the ones she’s developed for the show’s elaborate gala scenes. The sparkling gold Jean Fares couture gown Olivia wears the night of the near assassination of Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) in Season 2 was resurrected from the back of a Melrose Avenue shop, while the crimson, strapless ensemble Mellie wears to her presidential inauguration ball in the Season 6 finale is Oscar de la Renta, a nod to how far TV and fashion have come since the show’s early years, when Paolo says she had to beg for items.

Paolo is also proud of a full-length skirt and blouse in the Season 7 finale, a piece that came straight from the fall 2018 Carolina Herrera runway show — but the costume designer is tight-lipped about who will be wearing it.

Not all of Paolo’s projects are runway-ready. Her résumé includes Showtime’s working-class dramedy “Shameless” and costuming actors in scrubs and lab coats for “ER.” She also oversaw costume design for ABC pilot “Man of the House,” which Washington is producing.

“I find doing beautiful is, for me, simple and straightforward,” says Paolo. “But making something look real, like ‘Shameless’ — that is hard.”

 

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