How Olivia Pope added color to her 'Scandal' wardrobe

On a late April morning, Emmy-winning costume designer Lyn Paolo stepped away from the on-set action of producer and writer Shonda Rhimes' hit ABC show "Scandal," filming at Sunset Gower Studios, to do a walk-through of the designer closet of the show's main character, Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington.

It was the final day of filming the show's fifth year -- the season finale airs at 9 p.m. Pacific tonight -- and weeks before entertainment websites reported "Scandal's" sixth season may be delayed or shortened to accommodate Washington's pregnancy.

"We love to be in this room," said Paolo, the English-born costume designer for "Shameless," "Animal Kingdom," "The West Wing" and other shows and movies, on the subject of how she and Washington work together to dress Olivia Pope. "There's no one here with us — Kerry and I. We work through the script."

While the two share a love for fashion, Paolo and Washington are also political junkies. "Three minutes into the State of the Union after Mrs. Obama stood up," Paolo said, "I get a text from Kerry saying, 'Is that the Narciso Rodriguez that we wore three episodes ago?' And I'm like, 'Yes, I think it is.' ... We were thrilled. We loved it — the two of us — and I know Shonda loved it. Look at that beautiful color.... It's fantastic."

For the last 4 1/2 seasons, "Scandal" viewers could rest assured they knew specifics about Olivia Pope, the no-nonsense Washington fixer of scandals — hence the show's title — who loves big pours of red wine as much as her endless supply of Prada handbags. And most important, they came to expect what she'd wear in each episode: one of her uniforms of whites, creams, grays and blacks, and sometimes a signature white hat or a pair of gloves.

The second half of Season 5, however, told the story of Olivia's transformation, and in the process, viewers saw how she scaled back on wearing neutrals in favor of adding color to her wardrobe.

And if you stepped inside Olivia's closet, you'd have come across the sartorial evidence of reds, purples, vibrant blues, yellows and tangy oranges. Neutral pieces from past seasons were replaced by tops, jackets, shoes and bags in a rainbow of colors.

That's because, according to Paolo and Washington, Rhimes, who created "Scandal," wanted to show how Olivia was at a crossroads in her life while evolving and becoming her own person again, post being held hostage, post having an abortion and post getting out of her on-again, off-again relationships with the president and a trained killer. The use of color in her wardrobe also was written into the script and mentioned on screen by Olivia's father, played by Joe Morton.

Olivia's on-location closet, bigger than some Angelenos' studio apartments, has all of the goodies a fashionista would dream about and perhaps kill for (and end up having to call Olivia Pope and Associates to clean up the carnage), including selections from Valentino, Escada, Giorgio Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, Carolina Herrera, Bottega Veneta, Piazza Sempione, Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Ralph Lauren and Saint Laurent.

It's a trove of pajamas, dresses, suits, outerwear, athleticwear, shoes, gloves and even the first Prada handbag that Olivia had in the show's pilot. (The bag belongs to Paolo, but Washington thought it would work for the episode. So began the connection with the luxury Italian label.) And after five seasons, what does Paolo know for sure about Olivia Pope?

"She likes Prada," Paolo said, laughing. "That's my world.... And Mrs. Prada likes our show.... Designers now like to work with our show. Most of the clothes we use on the show at this point are from the collections. We don't necessarily buy them from the stores directly. We buy them from the [fashion] house or the designer."

Paolo said the show owns the wardrobe because some clothes are used for flashbacks or a shift in the story line.

"In Shondaland," Paolo said, referring to Rhimes and her production company, "you never know what point in history you're going to be in terms of the character arcs. So we purchase the items before they hit the stores. So designers are happy to work with us in that way.... By doing that, when the show airs, the items are in the store." 

During the first couple of seasons of "Scandal," Paolo said people would write to her inquiring about a particular top or jacket. "And I would have to write back to our gladiators," Paolo said, referring to the fans in Olivia Pope-speak, "and say, 'I'm really sorry it's sold out. I bought it on sale at blah, blah, blah.'"

In this new world order, Olivia wears floral prints, color-blocking, lines of color and more dresses, and fans easily should be able to find what she wears in stores.

"I think [the use of color] helps Olivia. It helps Kerry become Olivia. The gladiators love it," Paolo said. "We did it for story purposes.... It's now become a game with the gladiators. They are always writing to me going, 'What did that blue purse mean?' And I'm thinking, 'I don't think it meant anything.' It has become a thing."

Among her favorite pieces this season, Paolo said, she loved the Escada jacket and Oscar de le Renta gown Olivia wore to a late-season wedding as well as a felted wool Ferragamo coat she also wore.

"Probably only Kerry could wear this," Paolo said, holding out the arm of the coat. "I love the detail and just the color-blocking. It's just fantastic, isn't it? And so few people are doing it right now."

Paolo said the "Scandal" team knew there was going to be a huge change in Olivia Pope during Season 5.

"Shonda, [producer] Betsy [Beers] and the creative team — all of us were talking about what would that change be and how would it be reflected in her costumes," Paolo said. "And I've been jonesing for the last season to change. I had this bright orange purse that's up there on the wall that we've had on the second season from my friends at Ralph Lauren, and we always joked about the orange purse, the orange purse. It will never, ever, ever be able to be used."

To make the wardrobe switch, Paolo said she presented two mood boards to Rhimes and a board reflecting the neutrals used on the show.

"It was all of these amazingly bright, beautiful colors, and then I did a second board that was all dark," Paolo said. "And I did a board that was, 'This is what we do now.' And Shonda said, 'Wow. I love all the color and can't we?' I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' And to help out, she put it in the script, which is amazing. God bless her.... So that gave us freedom."

And like Olivia's fashion evolution, Paolo said it's not impossible for viewers who might favor a neutrals-only palette to step out of their comfort zone and begin adding hints of color through tops, jackets and accessories without feeling pressure from the color wheel.

"Neutrals are sometimes easier in life, perhaps," she said. "I'm always wearing black and I do touches of color.... You can tell a story with color and tone and silhouette."

With the season coming to a close, "Scandal's" fashion fans probably want to know the answer to this: Will Olivia's color exploration continue into Season 6?

"It's not up to me," Paolo said, laughing. "It's up to Ms. Rhimes."

Follow me at @marquesharper on Twitter.

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