'Scandal' Costume Designer Will Teach You How To Dress Like A Gladiator
As soon as Thursday hits, I’m usually on autopilot, my mouth rattling off, “Can’t—Scandal” before my brain has even processed what was said to me. It’s a refrain I return to, again and again—sometimes when it’s not even merited.
Last Thursday night was, in a sense, like all others—and yet, different too. Scandal was on, my autopilot was cranked all the way up. The only difference was that “Can’t—Scandal” held much more clout than usual. That night, watching Scandal was not merely a tradition born out of an insatiable longing for companionship and escapism—it was my job.
You see, the following day was my scheduled interview with Scandal’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo—a woman who, incidentally, can call Scandal her job most days out of the year. A lucky woman, one might say. A #blessed woman. And if you thought I wasn’t going to use this opportunity to pretend—if, for only mere hours—that I, too, could call Scandal my profession… well, you’re wrong.
It’s crazy to think that Olivia Pope, Scandal’s leading lady and master of all quandaries, could use a helping hand every once in awhile. That, when it comes to her wardrobe, someone else has it handled. And yet, as B613 and its batshit crazy antics have taught us time and again, life is crazy.
Born in Sunderland, a town in Northern England, Paolo first discovered her affinity for costume design at University, where she helped style the Shakespeare and Chaucer plays her and her fellow English lit majors put on. After studying to become a teacher, she moved to the States, and so began her untraditional path to costume designer of the highest order. Much like Drake, Paolo started from the bottom—as a production assistant, doing craft service on commercials, “whatever it took to get people to notice me,” she told me. After working on big commercials and music videos, she landed her first big break as the costume designer for Homefront, and went on to work for The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, ER, Shameless, and eventually Scandal.
As a costume designer working for a show based in DC, Paolo is limited to a rather conservative aesthetic. That’s not to say her job isn’t hard. Whereas Cookie Lyon’s wardrobe (of FOX’s Empire) tells its own gaudy, deafening story, the outfits on Scandal are subtle, nuanced, and symbolic.
That’s not just any old blue that Olivia is wearing (season four, episode 16), that’s Proenza navy, a tone that’s rarely used on the show and sartorial proof that Liv still be strugglin’. Nor is this Liv simply having an all-black moment (season three, episode 12); these are sartorial clues that she’s literally in the dark. And P.S., that’s not just any old Joie loungewear (season three, episode ten), that’s the same outfit Liv usually wears to call Fitz, except this time she’s calling her dad. Daddy issues, as it were. In other words, most of the outfits on the show actually carry a lot of weight. And the fans love it; so much, in fact, that it spawned its own capsule collection, Scandal Collection for The Limited, for which Paolo and Kerry Washington designed a couple pieces.
Paolo might be an unseen presence on the set of Scandal, but as far as the cast, crew, and Rhimes are concerned, she’s as integral to the show as Quinn’s sassiness, Liv’s lip-quiver, and that face Huck makes when he’s on the computer and concentrating really hard. She is, after all, the keeper of the white hat. I had the pleasure of chatting with her and, thankfully, did not scare her away with my enthusiasm. Instead, we talked about breaking into costume design and her symbiotic relationship with Washington. Cue the Motown…
“It’s almost like somebody hands you an outline of a person’s life and, [from that], you have to create a world.”
So, I’m a huge fan of Scandal. But before we get to that, would you be able to explain the difference between a costume designer and a wardrobe stylist?
I’m a huge fan of Scandal too!
So, I’ve done both—and I still do both. When you’re a stylist and you’re styling a still shoot or a client, you’re interpreting what would look best on them and helping them to find their way forward to present an exterior of that person. To present an image. And I love that because you’re often dealing with really high fashion people.
When you have to put your costume designer head on, it’s not really about what my interpretation is at that point. Instead, every trace you make is based on the script that you’ve been handed. It’s almost like somebody hands you an outline of a person’s life and, [from that], you have to create a world. For instance, on ER, I had to create a hospital. So you’re creating this unreal place that you are trying to convince your audience is real. And—this is no disrespect to my friends or to myself when I’m styling—[but] I think that’s a little bit harder to do.
I always tell people, I find working on Scandal to be such a joy because, well, because of Shonda [Rhimes], of course,—who’s amazeballs—and Kerry [Washington], equally amazing, and the cast. But it’s about making everything beautiful, whereas when I work on a show like Shameless, I find that harder to do because it’s grungy and it’s real and you still have to make the characters feel appealing, and somewhat on point with fashion. But they’re poor. So how do you do that? How do you make it feel real but still intriguing?
What do you think is the best way to break into your field [as a costume designer]?
It’s tricky—it’s not an easy thing to do. But I would say the best thing you could do is be an assistant to a designer and learn from them. I love to teach people—I’m constantly moving my PAs (production assistants) up and helping them to get into the union. But what I don’t like is [when someone] who has not done anything at all and [is] only 22—and no offense to 22-year-olds because I was 22—[and] the first words out of their mouth is, “I want to be a designer,” but they haven’t done any of the work!
They haven’t learned, they don’t know the process, they don’t know how to do it. But they’re presenting themselves to me as a designer and I often have a long chat with them. [I ask,] “Well, what have you designed?”—in the nicest possible way—and they go, “Well, nothing.” Then I go, “Well why are you using the moniker if you haven’t done it?” So I think if you find someone who will be your mentor, I think that is [key]—and that is what I do with my crew.
Are there any cardinal rules or sins when it comes to costume design?
Well, I wouldn’t call it “sins,” but I always try to approach each character like a new person that I’m just meeting for the first time. I think it’s really difficult to draw the line between the actor and the character. And [it wouldn’t be] the best path for you [if you started] dressing the actor as the actor, as opposed to as the character in the project. That is one of the differences between styling and designing—you’re not dressing the actor, you’re now creating. So, for instance, Kerry does not dress the way Olivia Pope does, and in fittings with Kerry, we’ll look at each other and I’ll go, “This feels like you,” and she’ll go, “I know!” And then we’ll say, well we can’t use this. So that’s something you have to be true to—as true as you can.
Since working on Scandal, what’s been your most favorite costume design moment?
Oh boy, that’s almost impossible to answer! Well I love the first episode of this season because it was so challenging. We had a royal family in that and the princess and there were so many layers to that story—there always is with Shonda. Being English, it was fun to do all the research on all the royal families around the world
But it’s really hard for me to pick one episode. I always like it when everyone’s dressed up in gowns, so I would say the Christmas episode this year was kind of fun. Our absolutely amazing art director and set dressing team did the most beautiful job creating the holiday season in the West Wing—I just thought it was so beautiful. The bigger the better, the more costumes the better. The crew may not feel that way, in the middle of me saying, “I need this!” and “Get me that!” [Laughs] But I love the challenge of a big, giant episode.
I noticed—and I could be wrong—but it seems like Olivia is wearing more red this season?
Yeah well we made the transition in the mid-season break this year. Because Olivia is basically suffering from PTSD and is walking away from the man she loves—is leaving Fitz—and is just becoming stronger, Shonda and Kerry and I were talking for a long time about making a change in the Olivia Pope palette. But we all felt strongly that there had to be a reason for the change, and the Christmas episode, where she walks out of the West Wing and decides to be her own person, [was a pivotal moment].
“I will only say that Josh Malina has continued his reputation from The West Wing days of being a paramount prankster.”
I know our fans are still struggling with this change and with her leaving Fitz, but I think in our minds—certainly in my mind—to make the adjustment, I had to believe that Olivia is actually better than she’s ever been. She’s stronger and more determined in her own heart and we wanted to express that through a huge change in her costumes. We decided to do that by introducing vibrant—almost shockingly vibrant—colors to her wardrobes. So you see a lot of bright orange and purple and bright red and royal blues. And that, in its own way, has made all of these new scenes with her and—her now business partner—Mellie more interesting to figure out. How do I dress these two women now that, basically, Olivia wears Mellie colors? Where do I go with Mellie? It’s been fun; we’ve had a great time this season.
What do you think is the most surprising thing you’ve found out about the cast in real life?
Oh I don’t really talk about their real life—it’s none of my business. Except I will only say that Josh Malina has continued his reputation from The West Wing days of being a paramount prankster. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. He’s a rascal.
So I know you just finished up filming this season. It’s kind of crazy to think that you were just filming an episode that’s going to air, like, two or three weeks later. I always thought the interim period was much longer.
Each show is different. So, for instance, [with] Shameless, we finish that months ahead and then it airs later. But Scandal [is different]; we do 22 episodes and they’re such dense story episodes. I feel bad for our editors—it sometimes gets really tight towards the end. It adds a great element of excitement though. You know that you’re seeing your work much sooner and I like it—I like when we get close to airdates. For me, it’s kind of a rush.
In a WWD article, Kerry said about you: “I’d do anything Lyn wanted me to do. I’d do anything Lyn asked.” Which kind of puts you in a unique situation. Is there anything you’ve always wanted Olivia to wear, but were too wary of asking Kerry?
Oh my gosh, no! I mean, Kerry and I, we sort of have this symbiotic relationship, we literally finish each other’s sentences, it’s kind of weird when you’re with us. People laugh. And she often says we share the same brain.
But ultimately, we do what’s written on the page, and I think this is something that I should really emphasize: the genius behind all of this is Shonda Rhimes. Kerry and I just sort of execute what she’s written. I am so in awe of that woman—she just exudes talent, and everything she writes is so beautiful. And we just read it and interpret it and hope that we’re getting it right. So I would never ask Kerry to do anything that wasn’t on the page. [Sometimes we] have discussions, like, “What does this mean?” and then Shonda helps us with that. But we are always going to do whatever Shonda has put on that page. Because what she puts on the page is so brilliant!
What’s been the best piece of advice that Shonda has given you?
Sometimes, when I question myself and I’m just really nervous about a choice that I’ve made, I’ll send her a picture and I’ll say, “What do you think?” And she always writes back, “Just do what you do.” So basically, she’s like, just do what you do, you’re good at it, go away. [Laughs] The thing that Shonda gives creative people like myself—because I think a lot of creative people are like me; I’m a little whacky—she gives me the confidence I need to move forward. She is a very nurturing producer in that she allows me to do my job and gives me that gift, you know? She gives me the gift of her trust, which I take as being a sacred gift, something that I take very seriously.
Images courtesy of Lyn Paolo. All other images via Cockeyed Caravan and hitshowstowatch.com.
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