‘It’s more about a state of mind’
Since the debut of “Scandal” in 2012, the style of Washington, D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) has been widely celebrated and emulated. Whether she’s running a campaign, schmoozing with senators or dealing with a crisis at the White House, Olivia knows what to wear to take control of a room.
The concept of power dressing dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, decades during which when women were just beginning to exert ownership over their professional lives. Men dominated most work environments, and women turned to power dressing as a way to establish and gain authority among male colleagues.
Those initial iterations of power dressing erred on the conservative side and often included tailored suits, jackets with padded shoulders, turtleneck sweaters and knee length skirts. These pieces aimed to defeminize and desexualize women, ideally making them less likely to be objectified in the workplace (which, obviously, doesn’t always work).
Today, while women in positions of power still know how to rock a pantsuit, they have also expanded their sartorial repertoire to include items previously considered too feminine or too soft, like shift dresses and pencil skirts.
Doing so can still come with a fair amount of criticism — remember the uproar when Michelle Obama exercised her right to bare arms?
But in Shondaland — the universe in which Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV shows including “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Grey’s Anatomy” exist — strong, influential women have redefined what it means to power dress. Olivia Pope, in particular, has been a key character who has changed and elevated the art of power dressing.
“Power dressing for me means confidence,” said Lyn Paolo, costume designer for “Scandal.” “You can walk into any situation and feel solid and grounded.”
Olivia’s statement-making outerwear is central to her power dressing, and that’s a reflection of her ability to lead and go to battle for her clients.
“Her coats are kind of an armor,” Paolo said. “Whenever she’s going to confront someone or she has a moment where she has to feel more powerful, we always layer her costume with a coat.”
That’s a technique that women can use in real life, too.
“My mom always used to joke that no matter what you have on underneath, if you put a beautiful coat over it and a decent pair of shoes, suddenly you’re elegant, and it’s true,” Paolo said. “They say the shoes make the man. I think the coat makes the woman — I really do.”
But power dressing doesn’t have to be all capes and suits.
“It can mean a pair of jeans and the right boots,” Paolo said.
“It’s more about a state of mind and less about the outward shell.”
To be fair, the strictly-business Olivia rarely dons denim. But when she does, there’s a reason for it.
“When we do see her in a more casual light, it’s usually either in a dream or at home relaxing with her wine and popcorn,” Paolo said. “In those moments, I tend to go with that sort of ‘town and country’ look with the Ralph Lauren soft cashmeres and the beautiful Donna Karan sweaters and cardigans, but always in soft pastel tones.”
Those delicate hues in Olivia’s casualwear are a departure from her generally neutral work attire. Whether it’s a tan suit, a gray cape or a black blouse, her professional wardrobe is reliably colorless. But white, specifically, has become synonymous with Olivia Pope.
In the pilot episode, viewers get their first sighting of Olivia in her signature shade. She wears a white Tory Burch trench coat while confronting President Grant’s (Tony Goldwyn) mistress, Amanda Tanner (Liza Weil).
“I said at the time, ‘We should try and soften her a little bit and play off her words,’” Paolo said. “She looks sweet in a Doris Day sort of way. She’s dressed in white, but then all of a sudden these mean words come out of her mouth.”
The white phenomenon started there, but it really grew thanks to Rhimes, whose scripts continuously reference the “white knight” and the “white hat.”
Last season, however, Olivia began ditching her neutrals for more vibrant tones like cobalt and tangerine.
“That was meant to be a little jarring because Shonda actually wrote it into the script,” Paolo said.
“She wrote that suddenly we see Olivia as we’ve never seen her before. She’s bright and colorful.”
That shift happened as her relationship with her father Rowan (Joe Morton) evolved, and as she discovered more about him, her mother Maya (Khandi Alexander) and how their past lives have affected Olivia’s present.
“We were learning all these things that we’d never known,” Paolo said. “Hence the bright blue and orange. She was going through this major transition, and we wanted to use color in that way.”
But this season, all that color will begin to fade away. [Spoiler alert] Olivia is now Command, the head of black-ops group B613, and arguably the most powerful person in the world. How will that role be reflected in her wardrobe? Just how much more power can be packed into her power dressing?
“The color is slowly disappearing,” Paolo said. “You should expect to see sharper angles to her clothing. There will be more structure — it’s almost architectural.”
In Thursday night’s season premiere, for example, Olivia will wear a long-sleeved Stella McCartney gown that features a plunging V neckline and beaded starburst embellishments.
“She’s never worn a gown like that,” Paolo said. “It’s definitely more dramatic and less romantic. It’s very business. We tend to use strapless gowns on Olivia, so now that she’s doing the things she’s doing — which I can’t really tell you — it’s different and it represents how things have changed. She is fully Command and her clothing will reflect her new role.”
The seventh and final season of “Scandal” premieres Thursday night on ABC at 9 p.m. EST.