When audiences were introduced to Olivia, she was a tough-talking business owner with connections in high places and an ability to extricate the rich and powerful from indelicate situations. But as the seasons unfolded and her affair with President Fitzgerald Grant became entrenched in melodrama, Olivia — portrayed by Kerry Washington — spent much of her time emoting through her glorious, but twitchy, lips until finally, finally she walked away from the impossible entanglement.
This coat, with its strong lines and bold hue, serves as a vivid statement of new intent. Featured prominently in the teasers for the upcoming season, which begins Thursday, the coat is plot point and character sketch. It should come with a spoiler alert.
The trench was created by New York-based designer Derek Lam, who featured it in his pre-fall 2015 collection. It sold for $5,900 and according to Jan Schlottmann, the company's chief executive officer, it sold quite well — particularly to women whose personal style is a resume bullet point.
The coat is an about-face in aesthetic for Washington's character, who has spent the previous five seasons dressed in a palette dominated by black and white. Indeed, the show was built around the idea of Olivia leading a posse of gladiators ready to fight for their client using all the tools at their disposal. They were a force of good and as the characters were fond of saying: They wore the white hat.
But no more. In the trailer, Olivia literally throws her white fedora aside. The supporting cast is mostly suited up in leather. And if one goes all the way down the rabbit hole of semiotics, Olivia's red coat — indeed her new, more richly colored wardrobe — is bursting with all manner of possible meanings: Olivia is angry. Olivia has become re-acquainted with her bold, dynamic self. Olivia is blood-thirsty. Olivia has become the equivalent of a matador's cape — teasing and tormenting Fitz-the-bull.
The one thing it is not, says costume designer Lyn Paolo, is "retail therapy." Olivia did not go on a soul-soothing shopping spree. "It's about her being stronger than ever and more determined than ever," Paolo says. "It's actually less about anger."
"She's deciding that she's stronger on her own and she's determined to be on her own," Paolo says. "I think in turning away from Fitz, she's proving that she's powerful enough to do things on her own."
Paolo added: "She's not relying on a man."
Part of Olivia's new Technicolor wardrobe also includes a prescient choice that ended up part of a real-life Washington fashion moment. In an upcoming episode taped weeks earlier, Olivia wears a version of the Narciso Rodriguez sheath that Michelle Obama wore to the recent State of the Union address — a dress that had social media in a fraught debate over whether it was gold or banana or chartreuse.
"We had already used that dress. . . and we were a little saddened that [the episode] hadn't already aired," Paolo says.
As the new season unfolds, Paolo says, the entire "color palette and tone of the show" will change — from the clothes worn by First Lady Mellie Grant to those of President Fitz himself. "I actually find the men's fashion my favorite to deal with," Paolo says. "I love the subtlety. I love how just by tweaking a tie you can change everything."
The most difficult and intriguing character to dress is the newest: Marcus Walker, played by Cornelius Smith, Jr. "It's challenging when someone new comes into the show and they're still finding their footing," Paolo says. "Often the actor doesn't know [the character] because we don't get the scripts far in advance. . . You don't know a lot about him." Marcus is described as a former activist who once pushed Olivia to re-calibrate her moral compass.
"We're being a bit more nuanced about his look. We're staying in the earth tones because it's a bit muddy who he is." He is not fully indoctrinated into the morally questionable ethos of the gladiators; he is not suited up in black. He has a streak of optimism.
Since "Scandal" premiered, fashion has always been a vibrant element in its storytelling. It has helped to define Washington and evoke life at the center of power. But Paolo has also used it to underscore the constrained life of an ambitious first lady. It has fleshed out the personality of a controlled — and controlling — Olivia Pope. Who but the most Type A person could live life in a pristine wardrobe of white coats and suits? "In terms of the fashion, the audience will love" this season, Paolo says. "Everything is changing."