It wasn’t exactly an homage to Hillary Clinton. But she was there in spirit. On the season finale of “Scandal,” Clinton was an indelible source of inspiration — for what was worn and what was not.
On Thursday night’s two-hour episode, Melody Margaret Grant, her hair pinned back and up, stood on the west side of the Capitol and took the oath of office, becoming the country’s first female president. To get there, she traversed the kind of tortured, circuitous, blood-soaked route that is a hallmark of the Washington-based melodrama created by Shonda Rhimes. So, despite the history-making nature of her victory, it was not one that fizzed with patriotic delight. But that’s how things work in Shondaland — a strange, alternative reality that offered up a picture of how Jan. 20, 2017, might have look if the electoral college had voted a different way and the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” had not only been shattered but done with a female vice president along for the breakthrough.
The new President Grant (Bellamy Young) was sworn in wearing a navy-blue Escada coat with kimono sleeves, navy leather gloves and a red, white and blue scarf neatly wrapped around her neck. Underneath, she wore an Armani dress and blazer. Over the course of her campaign, Mellie wore a flag pin on her jacket or her dress, as all politicians do, but it seemed to get larger the closer she came to victory. By Inauguration Day, her bedazzled flag brooch, not Ann Hand but Oscar Heyman, was practically as large as the satisfied grin on her face.
Holding the Bible and gazing on approvingly was her vice president, Luna Isabella Vargas (Tessie Santiago), who was dressed in a pale pink overcoat from Sentaler, adorned with a more discreet flag pin. Vargas, by the way, was not what she seemed — that sugary-sweet coat was nothing but visual misdirection — and before the two-hour finale concluded, she had been blamed for the assassination of her husband, was forced to take a poison pill as punishment for her crime, and was last seen slumped on a sofa in the White House.
But back to Mellie.
This female president did not wear pantsuits, or even pants — not when she was campaigning and not when she was sworn in. In fact, her only scene in trousers was during a fantasy sequence during which she dreamed about being president, says “Scandal” costume designer Lyn Paolo.
“Mellie has always been a dress girl. First lady Mellie wore lots of floral and prints and garden-party dresses,” Paolo says of the character, who divorced former president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and embarked on a solo political career. “As a senator, she wore dresses with a jacket — often a black jacket over a shift dress. . . . For the campaign, I thought it would be too much of a leap for her to wear pants. Her dresses became more of a sheath.”
“I don’t know what we’re doing with Mellie going forward,” Paolo says, “but now that she’s president I don’t want to do anything hitting you over the head with it.” So presumably, still no pantsuits.
As the outgoing fictional president prepares to leave the White House and drama continues to swirl around a possible assassination plot against Mellie, the new commander in chief stands up mid-meeting, announces she has to leave and delivers a mini monologue that surely must have been cheered by certain female politicians, their exasperated champions and ardent naysayers who believe that fashion is a distraction rather than tool of self-expression.
Mellie: “I have a valet and a dresser waiting for me to finalize my outfit for the ball. For the other 44 presidents, that took all of 10 minutes, but for the lady president that means choosing a dress that will impress the New York fashion blogs without insulting the Washington conservatives. So rather than sit here and discuss the ways I might die today, I’m going to go pick an outfit now so I can be done with that nonsense, so I can focus on what’s really important: running the damn country.”
And with that, she didn’t so much as storm out of the room as walk briskly to deal with the task at hand.
Yet just beneath the surface of her cutting commentary about women and fashion, Mellie still wants to look good. Who wouldn’t? But how?
“How would the first female president dress for her inaugural? I spent hours pondering it,” Paolo says. Rhimes “actually sent me pictures of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state going to Obama’s inaugural.”
“I really wanted the [look] to be less old Mellie. We always did a kind of Southern-belle feel, A-line, off the shoulder. I just wanted to have something about it that felt regal,” Paolo says. She wanted a dress that allowed Mellie to “straddle that crazy divide of looking feminine and strong. It’s hard for women. And it’s not fair.”
Paolo chose a slim, red, strapless Oscar de la Renta gown with gray and cream bugle-bead embroidery and a matching, short-sleeved shrug. “Worn without the jacket it would have been more L.A.,” Paolo says. “We would never have used it without the jacket.”
The dress is body-conscious but not form-fitting. It reveals very little skin, but it isn’t so buttoned up that it is matronly. It is festive but not ostentatious. It would not spark a roar of excitement among fashion aficionados, but it wouldn’t generate mocking, either. And the Washington establishment would probably be just fine with it. It was also a dress that Clinton just might have worn. De la Renta, who died in 2014, was a close Clinton friend and her favorite designer.
“Scandal” is all fiction, of course. But fiction influences perceptions of reality. The finale was dominated by power-hungry, power-grabbing women. Within the outlandish story lines and the games of psychological chess on “Scandal,” women embrace power because they believe they have earned it.
They wear their power with delight. This is what that looks like in alpaca, wool and silk.