Scandal costume designer breaks down Olivia's brighter, bolder new wardrobe
The white hat has called in for reinforcements.
Scandal’s return from its midseason break last month has brought the twists and intrigue Gladiators know and love, but those loyal watchers also took notice of something new: the bolder colors now being worn by Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope.
OPA’s chief fixer has long been preferential to neutral hues through all her client-handling and personal drama with the White House, her father, and Fitz, but after walking out of the White House in that shocking midseason finale she’s returned in bright oranges, reds, and yellows. And, on a show where Olivia’s clothing has always been reflective of how she’s feeling, the new look comes in designer-shoe step with all the other big changes in the character’s life.
EW spoke with Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo about the bold new color palette, which she stressed is a conscious choice on Olivia’s part and not the result of breakup-induced retail therapy.
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“It is not about, ‘I’m going to buy myself some new clothes to cheer myself up.’ It’s that [Olivia] has decided that she is going in a different path and a new direction,” Paolo says. “She’s always been powerful, and she’s always been able to express her power in very subtle ways … and when they see these bright colors people should know: this is a new human. She is even more driven, even more determined, and she is going to do whatever it takes for Olivia Pope to survive.”
Read on for more from our conversation with Paolo on Olivia’s new Scandal color guard.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve always loved how Olivia’s wardrobe is a reflection of what she’s thinking and feeling, which is why I was so intrigued by all the color we’ve been seeing since the midseason break.
LYN PAOLO: For the longest time, I was saying to Kerry in the room, “Gosh, if only we had a reason for her to be different.” What could be traumatic enough? Finding out that her mother was alive didn’t do it, being kidnapped didn’t do it, her PTSD, everything she’s struggling with — and it was great because Shonda [Rhimes] reached out to me towards the end of the season and said to me, “So, something is going to happen here [and] the audience is probably not going to be madly in love with us for a while. But it’s going to be big, and how should we reflect that?” And I brought her a bunch of images of these bright, vibrant oranges and reds and I did another board that was mid-colors and another one that was what we do now, sort of like, these are where we could go, and she said, “I want you to go for it.”
Ever since we met her, Olivia’s been in this relationship with Fitz — even when they weren’t together, they were really together. And then suddenly everything she wanted is there, but with that relationship came all this other baggage of sort of being the new Mellie. And when she walked away from Fitz, with all that lovely Prada luggage they shipped in from Italy for us, she was walking away from the life that she thought she wanted, and she’s reinventing herself.
Can you talk about some of the more colorful pieces we’ve seen so far, and why you chose them?
Shonda actually ended up writing it in the first episode back. Rowan actually said, “What’s with the clothes?” and that was brilliant because when we first see Olivia, the thing that we really wanted to do was shock the audience, and so one of my favorite things about that episode was the Fendi cape coat that she wore, because it was bright orange with violet color-blocking, and underneath she had this amazing Akris bright orange dress and purple shoes — Fendi had these amazing purple shoes that matched the coat perfectly — and she walks in and there’s all of this color and it’s like no Olivia you’ve ever seen before. That combination of bright orange and purple, purple shoes, and black gloves, for us was just very important. Not that we wanted to scare the audience, but we literally wanted them to be like, “Oh my God, we do not know what’s going on, or who this person is anymore.”
There was also that yellow dress, the one she wore under the black coat.
Yeah. So that dress, which we were then amazed that Mrs. Obama wore for the State of the Union, was the same thing. Because all her scenes in that were with Jake — a lot of it was with Jake, a lot of it was in Pope and Associates, and also dealing with her client in that episode — we wanted to have something that was even brighter than the original costume in the episode. So you have her in bright yellow, but because she has to deal with Jake so much and that relationship is so dark, we threw the Alexander McQueen coat over the Narciso Rodriguez dress. And a lot of people were like, “Oh my God, she’s in a skirt!” and then later we revealed that it’s a dress, which, again, Olivia doesn’t wear dresses. She’s always been in pants, except in flashbacks. So again sort of, much brighter, much more determined, this black and yellow together, very strong colors, but now she’s in a dress and what does that mean? You’ll find out later in the season!
I was so struck by the poncho from the last episode, as well.
Oh, I love that poncho. Because she wore it with Mellie, and that juxtaposition of these two women now is fascinating, the poncho combines part of Olivia’s old colors, which are those sort of caramels and the lighter tones, and also blended a little bit of what were Mellie’s colors. We’ve been playing with that a lot when we have those two characters together. Mellie is now sort back in those lighter tones she wore when she was pregnant with baby Teddy, because she’s happy. Mellie is doing her own thing now. She’s her own woman, she’s no longer the first lady, and she’s no longer in a relationship that made her unhappy. And so she’s in a better place, and I love the fact that Olivia’s trying to find her way now, and they have sort of swapped their color palettes.
How does Olivia’s palette continue to evolve as the season goes on?
I really can’t say much, but there are gonna be moments where you think we’re heading back to the old Olivia, you think, “Oh, what’s going on here?” but we are continuing with this color palette for the time being, so far.
What do you and Kerry discuss as you’re choosing what Olivia is going to wear each week?
The rest of our actors, I tend to build a closet for them and I see them four or five times a season, or if something special is happening. But Kerry and I get together every week and we sit and we go through each of the scenes, and before she comes in I will have done some preliminary some sketches or ideas of what’s going to happen within that, or maybe a color arc for that episode and I have a fantastic crew who will run out and find things for me. So we’re very weekly, and very much a team effort with Kerry. We do it all together.
Are there specific items or accessories that you’re looking for that you know you’re going to need now, with this new color-focused game plan?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t want to use the word difficult, but it’s more challenging to accessorize Olivia now that she is so color-blocked. So we are constantly on the lookout for new shoes and new accessories — Prada just kindly manufactured a new purse for us in Italy and sent it, because we were not finding it here. I’m constantly online looking, so I’m constantly pinning things and sending them to my crew and saying, “You must find this for me!” So it’s always an ongoing thing.
I’m sure you’re sworn to secrecy, but is there anything else you can tease about what’s coming up?
I just want our Gladiators to know that Olivia is blossoming. They should keep watching to see that. It’s amazing. The rest of this season is so crazy, I don’t even know where to start.
And I know even saying what kind of outfit she’s going to be wearing could give away things, but is there a dress, a color, or something else that’s coming up that viewers should keep their eyes out for?
There’s a Burberry coat coming soon that I’m obsessed by. I don’t think that’ll give anything away. And I think we should start a drinking game every time Olivia gets a brand new color of a Prada purse because I think we own every single one that ever existed at this point. So maybe we could start that.
Shonda Rhimes’ political drama: Sex! Murder! Olivia’s suits!