Kerry Washington brings a welcome dose of designer fashion to the (albeit fictional) political scene in D.C. as Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.” Silk blouses and luxurious coats dominate the closet of the White House communications director-turned crisis management specialist.
As season two of the show draws fans deeper into the emotionally and politically tangled world, we spoke with “Scandal” costume designer Lyn Paolo about Pope’s feminine, but professional style and her thoughts on dressing powerful women.
What type of research did you do to prepare for the show?
I did the show “The West Wing” for seven years. I’m British; I’m not American. So that was my introduction to Washington because we would be filming that quite a lot in D.C., and we had amazing access at the time.
How do costume choices for “Scandal” differ from your work on “The West Wing”?
Kerry [Washington]’s character is not in the West Wing, she’s not in politics directly. I had a broader range. She still has to be professional. But I had a little bit more leeway in the look and the palette. That intrigued me even more.
If we are going to have this great female lead, I wanted her to look female in a man’s world. That is where the idea of the light colors and silhouettes came from.
I really wanted to create a uniform for Kerry’s character — this is what I wear every day, but it is beautiful and works for my environment. It is appropriate for the situation and blends in to the situation, but still makes her stand out.
In the show, Olivia Pope wears a lot of light colors and pastels, but a lot of times the image of a powerful woman is Hillary Clinton-type primary shades. Was that deliberate?
I’m very interested in American politics in general. I feel it refreshing to not stick to the tried and true. The power dressing of the 70s and 80s, why are we still doing it?
Why does every single woman wear red and navy? I think the American public is smarter than that, and they would like you to be how you are. Why can’t these woman in power dress like themselves, not sticking to some old rules? Same for the men. I don’t see it as being patriotic, I see it as being without any ingenuity of your own.
I think that would be so endearing to the American public. Somebody different who bucks against all the trends.
How do you think this plays into the recent discussions about women pushing forward in the workplace and Sheryl Sandberg’s new book?
I think that the women in power should be representing women in a different light and be more innovative.
Regarding Sheryl’s book and the “leaning in,” I think there were a couple of interviews she gave that resonated with me. When people ask me about success, I tend to respond with the female platitudes of, “I was really lucky, and I met the right people and worked hard.” Whereas men say “I deserved it. I worked for it, and I deserved it.” I don’t think we have to be so self-absorbed, but I think there is a fine line in how we present ourselves.
There is a constant worry about not being too pushy, but I think Olivia Pope can be quite pushy. But because she represents herself in a feminine way, I think it works. I don’t think if she was in more of a masculine suit and stomping her feet — I don’t know if it would work as well.
How much do you think the show reflects how women in Washington really dress?
I will say fashion wise, I think Mellie [first lady Millicent Grant, played by Bellamy Young] is the template of more true to Washington than Olivia. That was a conscious choice. We definitely play that with the pearls and the prime colors. But Mellie is old D.C. and Olivia is new D.C. Both in great ways. Mellie looks amazing. I think she is quite a stylish first lady, but we do harken back to the more typical D.C. dressing.
Olivia wears pieces from some amazing designers. Who tends to be your favorite?
We do shop really great designers. But it’s really more about color and silhouette. We are loyal to some pieces because they work so often for us. Max Mara and a lot of Christian Dior, which is just a wee bit more girlish in its designs–super feminine. If we have a different theme where Olivia has to be more businesslike we’ll end up back in a more structured Armani suite.
What are some of your favorite pieces?
One is the Jean Fares gown. Its a white gown that has silver beading at the neck. She wore it in the scene when the president was shot. That gown worked perfectly in every way for that scene.
Also the shell pink Ferragamo coat. It looks white on camera, but it is really a soft pink.
We also use long gloves, which is manifesting as a fashion rend. We thought, wouldn’t that be great and an iconic 50s look because there are so many three-quarter sleeve coats out there right now. We try to stay true with the weather in D.C., so we didn’t want her running around with her arms exposed. So, the gloves have become part of the Olivia Pope arsenal of clothing.
Do you have any fashion advice for women in D.C.?
Be true to yourself and have a great tailor. Don’t conform to what I guess men or other women are telling you you have to wear. I see women when I’m in D.C that are amazingly dressed. They are just not the women we see on camera. That is just part of the conservative political world.
“Scandal” airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on ABC.