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Scandal: The Secrets Behind Olivia Pope's Style Evolution

Costume designer Lyn Paolo breaks it down

Joyce Eng

Like many people, Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo was pressured to join Twitter. Unlike most people, the person urging her was Kerry Washington and the reason was to provide a much needed public service.

"Kerry kept calling me saying, 'You need to get on Twitter,'" Paolo tells TV Guide. "And I was like, 'What are you talking about? Nobody cares about me.' She was like, 'No, no, every other question is, where did you get the jacket? Who's the jacket by?' I was like, 'Really?' And she was like, 'Yeah, you have to get on Twitter.'"

Paolo joined Twitter in November 2012, early into Scandal's second season and seven months after the show premiered. Since then, she's been inundated every week, sometimes every day, with questions about Olivia Pope's (Washington) stylish fashion that's become so popular and iconic it spawned a specialty line at The Limited. "It's fun and it's amazing," she says. "I love interacting with our gladiators online."

Olivia's style was distinct from the start -- elegant designer duds in shades of whites and neutrals, along with her trademark white hat. Coupled with Washington's don't-mess-with-me power walk, it's the kind of look that instantly grabs and holds your attention for as long as she's in the frame.

But as our favorite fixer grew and changed -- you know, made up with Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), broke up with Fitz, got kidnapped, killed two vice presidents, etc -- so too did her clothes. They had to. "For me, the work is making sure the actor feels like the character and we're telling the writer's story," Paolo says. "The clothes have to convey as much as the actors do."

Luckily for #gladiators all around the world, Paolo decoded Olivia Pope's tumultuous style story for TV Guide.

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Seasons 1-4: Gladiator in a Suit
A two-time Emmy winner who previously worked on ER and The West Wing, Paolo has been styling Scandal since the beginning, after Shonda Rhimes, a noted West Wing fan, called her "out of the blue and handed me this amazing gift." She was immediately inspired by a line in the pilot script -- "the white hat was the line Columbus [Short] delivers to Katie Lowes in the pilot and being a gladiator in a suit" -- and knew she wanted to set Olivia's palette in white, a rarity on television and in film.

"I've always been a huge fan of white in storytelling and on ER I didn't touch the lab coats; they were always true white," Paolo says. "I think it's an underused palette in television and film because it's harder to light. We were lucky we had our amazing DP, Oliver Bokelberg, who was on board and said, 'OK, go for it! Try it!'"

Paolo then met Washington and it "was like we had the same brain." Washington came armed with tearsheets and magazines that contained a lot of the same research Paolo had done. "It was such an organic thing," Paolo says. "I say we have a mind meld because we finish each other's sentences." There was one thing they disagreed on: Paolo wanted Olivia in skirts and Washington wanted her in pants. "She pushed for pants and she was right," Paolo says. "[Olivia] wears the pants."

Olivia strutting around in sophisticated suits and wide-leg trousers made for a far bolder statement, not only in Scandal's heightened D.C. world, but the chic, commanding yet feminine look helped redefine power-dressing, along with similar aspirationally stylish shows like The Good Wife, House of Cards and Veep with strong women at the center. "I loved that [the show] was about this powerful woman and I wanted her clothes to be empowering," Paolo says. "I looked at a lot of [photos of] women in D.C. and the political world and my feeling was to push it a bit."

Kerry Washington, Scandal

Season 1

Richard Cartwright/ABC via Getty Images

That sentiment combined with Paolo's inspirations led to Olivia's iconic white look in the pilot: a Tory Burch trench, accessorized with a Prada purse that actually belongs to Paolo. "Kerry was like, 'I love that purse.' I said, 'That's my purse.' She carried that in the pilot and it's still in our giant fitting room, but it belongs to me," Paolo shares. "I've loaned it to ABC/Disney for all these seasons, so I need to get it back when I leave! It was like that moment of, 'OK, so she's a Prada girl.'"

As Paolo continued to push the envelope in later episodes, she took advantage of the fact that Olivia straddled two worlds on the show: She lived and worked in the cutthroat, eat-or-be-eaten Washington, D.C., but the fixer wasn't a politician or running for office, so she didn't have to play by those stereotypical fashion rules. Her clothes were still professional and relatively conservative, but with a fashion-forward twist: impeccable tailoring, classic lines, form-fitting cuts and designer labels, which soon started sending Paolo yet-to-be-released items. Olivia's unmistakable early look featured a lot of white, creams, beige, soft tones and loose fabrics with a freedom of movement to them. "There was more innocence behind it, but it was still very no-nonsense," Paolo says.

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Season 5: Color Us Surprised
A major turning point came halfway through Season 5, after Olivia secretly aborted Fitz's baby and left him following a brutal war of words. Gone were the neutrals and in came a kaleidoscope of solid colors -- fiery reds, bright orange, sunshine yellow, royal blue. Olivia was at a crossroads, and Paolo wanted to show her taking her life back after she walked out of the White House in the midseason finale.

"I had actually been emailing back and forth with Shonda [and] I had those same conversations with Kerry: 'I think we need to make a change here, but I'm not sure what it is, but it would have to be story-driven.' We couldn't just do it just to do it," she recalls. "And Shonda wrote it in the script. 'Olivia Pope arrives to the dinner with Rowan (Joe Morton) and it's like no Olivia Pope you've ever seen before.' She gave us the permission just to run with the bright colors and that's when we put Kerry in the bright orange dress. It was us feeling, how does the clothing translate that this character's changing? How do we relate that to the audience?"

Kerry Washington, Scandal

Season 5

Kevin Estrada/ABC via Getty Images

The new colorful wardrobe was less a woe-is-me post-breakup shopping spree and more about Olivia reclaiming herself and starting over without any Fitz baggage. Olivia's clothes have always reflected what she's feeling and what she felt then was renewed confidence. "Olivia's never lacked confidence, but before [Season 5], she wore it, literally, more subtly with the whites and grays and neutrals," Paolo says. "The colors told you right away this was a new, more determined Olivia Pope."

Paolo even developed her own color code to further contextualize Olivia's feelings and outfit of choice. "Whenever she wore orange it was because she had to have a confrontational scene with somebody. Red was more for danger," she reveals. "We went through so many different incarnations with color, even with Mellie (Bellamy Young). When she was blue, she wore blue. When she was regal, she wore purple. When she was jealous, she wore green."

Not only did Paolo add color to Olivia's look, but she started putting the pantsuit aficionado in skirts and dresses too. "Our gladiators follow every tiny nuance so closely. Olivia didn't wear dresses and a lot of gladiators were like, 'Oh my god, she's in a dress!'" Paolo says. One of the most memorable vibrant dresses she donned was a saffron Narcisco Rodriguez number that Michelle Obama had also worn to the 2016 State of the Union. The episode, which aired in March 2016, had already been filmed before the address. "That was amazing. We couldn't believe it when we saw it."

Paolo, who also styles Shameless, Animal Kingdom and How to Get Away with Murder, is quick to note that Olivia's wardrobe was never completely absent of color before Season 5 -- they popped in minimally here and there against her whites and grays -- just like how her sartorial selections haven't been devoid of neutrals afterward, as she oscillates between the light and darkness. "It really depends on her character at the moment," she says. "Each script we treat as an individual story and sometimes there's a story arc within that script about that color."

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Season 6 and 7: The Dark Knight
Since becoming White House chief of staff and the new command of B613, Olivia has been crossing over -- and you can argue has fully crossed over -- to the dark side. She has all the power, for better or for worse, for good and for evil. It's a journey that began last season during Mellie's presidential campaign that culminated with Olivia forcing VP Luna (Tessie Santiago) to commit suicide and tricking an oblivious Mellie into reviving B613. As such, Paolo started giving her a darker palette. Now, black is the centerpiece of the seventh and final season. "She's in control, she has the power and is calling all the shots," Paolo says, adding that she has a new nickname for our head gladiator. "She's still a gladiator in a suit, but she's also the dark knight now."

Outfitting Olivia primarily in black was only the first step of the cosmetic makeover. The fit of her clothes has also dramatically, purposefully changed. Her high-end gear is tighter these days, symbolizing her new omniscient role and control. "Her couture style is much edgier than it was in the beginning," Paolo says. "It's more architectural. The silhouettes are sharper and more defined. There's no softness left in the silhouette."

That means no more free-flowing capes and comfy coats. Olivia's clothes are almost like armor now, and she wears them as such, as she tries to pull all the strings behind the scenes and reconcile her newfound power with her old fixing ways.

Kerry Washington, Scandal

Season 7

Mitch Haaseth/ABC

"Now we're full-on Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford because their lines are more structural," Paolo continues. "Because her life is more structured and it's darker and tighter and more bound up. Now everything is rigid because she's laser-focused on ensuring her president and her republic survive. There's a very sharp edge to the shoulder: She's carrying a lot of burdens now."

Of course, no matter how shady (no pun intended) Olivia gets, Paolo promises that her wardrobe won't be completely funereal. "I can say we're not just going to see black all year."

Like everyone else in the cast and crew not named Shonda Rhimes, the designer has no clue how Scandal, and thus Olivia's style journey, will end. But she does have a wish and an idea to bring it full circle.

"I am like apoplectic that she's gone to the dark side," Paolo says with a laugh. "I'm like emotionally invested in Olivia. I guess at the end I'd like it to all be white again. I don't know how somebody comes back from everything she's been through. Maybe she should be on a beach somewhere, away from it all with her glass of red wine, which is where I wish I could be at the end of the day. I'm really thinking we have to repeat something from the beginning in the finale, but I don't even want to say what it's gonna be because I don't even know what the finale is. But Kerry and I are both thinking about it. What will we do at the end that will be an homage to the pilot?"

Maybe that Prada purse?

Scandal airs Thursdays at 9/8c on ABC.