Thursday nights on ABC will never be the same. April 19 marks the end of an era for Shondaland as Scandal, the political drama starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a fictional character based on real-life fixer Judy Smith, bows out after seven seasons. When it debuted in 2012, shows like Scandal didn’t exist; at the time of its premiere, Washington was the first Black woman to star in a network TV drama airing during primetime since the ‘70s. It changed the game for the television landscape: Today, there are more diverse and inclusive castings, corresponding Twitter hashtags that for make for an interactive TV-watching experience, and programs centered around Black women.
But Scandal also changed the way Black women look on-screen. “She’s the most complex Black female lead we’ve ever seen in primetime,” Dr. Brittany Cooper, cofounder of Crunk Feminist Collective and assistant professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University told The New York Times of the Olivia Pope effect. “You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being” — one who was glamorous in her tailored Burberry trench coat and Tom Ford shoes, and always marched with a Prada bag hanging off arm.
But costume designer Lyn Paolo didn’t set out to change the way Black women were perceived on television. “You know, it’s so funny, because I didn’t really think about that at all,” Paolo tells Refinery29 from the set of TNT’s Animal Kingdom. “I had friends of friends who said to me, Oh, I’m so grateful for what you did for our community, and I was like ‘Oh, boy, I wish I could take some credit for that,' but I really just...I don’t want to say that I am not unaware, I am very aware, but at the time, I was just solely focused on telling Judy Smith’s story.”
The most pressing issue for Paolo was being able to light characters who wore so much white on-screen. “I didn’t want to lose Kerry’s beautiful face on camera,” she explains. The costume designer recounts a story while working on The West Wing; she was dressing Taye Diggs and realized that his face would be washed out because he was in a shirt that was too light for such a dark set. “There was a scene where I couldn’t really see him and we lost his face,” she continues. “And it was my fault, because I had put too light a shirt on him.” But it was her work on shows like The West Wing and ER that lead her to Shonda Rhimes. “I don’t think I could have done Scandal, or not done it the way I did, if I hadn’t had 20 years of experience.”
As Paolo was leaving her interview to become the show’s costume director, Rhimes actually told Paolo that she was a huge fan of her work on The West Wing. A good thing, too, because she arrived at Scandal with a working knowledge of the White House and Washington D.C.’s political scene; she had even been on Air Force One. But there was something else Paolo arrived on set with: Olivia Pope’s (now iconic) Prada bag.
“I am a Prada girl,” Paolo says when asked if there is any significance to Pope’s trusty handbag. “I carry a Prada purse, and so that purse was in the room during Washington’s very first fitting. It was literally mine.” Paolo notes that she got the bag as a gift but loaned it to the show for Washington to carry in the pilot. It stayed in the actress’s fitting room for the entire show, and she ended up giving it to Washington as a keepsake.
Though she always enjoyed watching “Smelly Mellie” swirl around her “hooch,” Paolo says she really loved Olivia’s closet in the West Wing, which she curated to include jewelry, Christian Dior coats, and of course, her Prada bags. But the best part, she says, is when Liv moved out: There's a shot of her walking out with several people carrying Pope’s Prada luggage — “It was on-loan and literally shipped overnight from Milan."
Day One fans might want to pay special attention to Pope’s trench she wears in the finale, as it honors the character’s story arc. “Shonda wrote into the finale — and I’m paraphrasing — that Olivia struts down a D.C. street in an iconic white coat,” she says. "Shonda agreed it should be something similar to the Tory Burch coat from the pilot,” but that particular coat is old and had been dried cleaned a million times. “It was not at its best and we couldn’t repeat it.” However, Paolo fashioned a Burberry trench in its place. “I left it longer than the original trench, which we had shortened below the knee, because it was freezing in DC” — but more importantly because “it felt like she needed more armor.” Paolo says. “She had gone through so much in the last seven seasons. Her strutting down the street in her Tom Ford shoes, with the white Burberry and the Prada, those are three brands we’ve used consistently through the years.”
The perfect sign-off for Olivia Pope.