November 14, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST

As things get messier for Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) in season three, Scandal viewers may have noticed that she’s dressing differently.

But costume designer Lyn Paolo says it’s the true Gladiators who have figured out that the wardrobe changes are as well thought-out as the show’s many plot twists.

“I’m intrigued by our Gladiators because they now understand these tiny little clues that we give through the clothes [that provide insight into] her mental state,” says Paolo, who points out that as her life has gotten more complicated, Pope has moved from wearing a mostly neutral, tone-on-tone wardrobe in silks and other light fabrics to bundling up in more textured pieces and bolder prints. “It’s all minimalistic changes, but what’s really fascinating is that the audience gets it.”

There’s even one costume detail that might hold the key to a major secret about Olivia. 

“She wears [a Monique Pean] ring all the time. We bought it for the pilot and joked that there had to be a backstory for it,” says Paolo, who hints that series creator Shonda Rhimes ran with the idea and worked the ring into the plot. “We are very conscious that she does not wear the ring in flashbacks. She only wears it in the present time.”

While Paolo won’t divulge the secrets of the ring, the designer is willing to explain the hidden meaning behind Olivia’s trusty Prada Twin Pocket purse (which retails for $2200 at Neiman Marcus). “In our first fitting, Kerry ended up falling in love with my Prada purse. We laughed and said, ‘Well, maybe she’s a Prada girl.’ Then Shonda wrote it into an episode. When Olivia’s character is mugged on the train she is carrying a different purse, but the next time we see her she’s carrying the Prada bag. In our heads, the old bag was an awful reminder of the fact that she got mugged, so she got a new one. Sometimes we do things for no real reason, but then it grows into something else. It’s like a game with the audience to see if they can figure it out.”

Method Dressing

“Kerry laughs at me because I’m like a method actor about clothes. I have to feel that it’s right for that particular moment,” Paolo says of using items like this high-collar Alexander McQueen military jacket (which can be yours for $1781.49 at to help underscore what’s going on in the scene. “This is a particularly difficult moment for her, with everything she has to deal with. We wanted her to be closed off emotionally, so she’s showing no skin at all.” While we rarely see Olivia’s feet on camera, a lot of thought goes into her shoes.. “We have a wide range of footwear on the show. [We choose shoes based] on what she’s doing. [Her] Gucci shoes have a stacked platform heel and we tend to use them when she’s striding into a room,” says the designer, who says Olivia is often shod in Miu Miu. “When she’s doing something with her father or with Fitz and she’s in a softer, more feminine moment, we’ll use pointed, kitten heel Manolo’s.”

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