Olivia Pope, the savvy D.C. fixer played by Kerry Washington, first strutted into our lives six years ago when Scandal premiered on ABC. Since then, viewers — or, more accurately, Gladiators — have watched as Olivia helped cover up murders, got kidnapped by mercenaries (who were hired by the former vice-president, no less), and fell in and out of love with President Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn).
Through it all, Olivia has looked impossibly flawless. No matter the situation, she knows what to wear to take control of a room. In Shondaland — the universe in which Shonda Rhimes’s hit TV shows exist — strong, authoritative women have consistently redefined what power dressing looks like. And Olivia Pope, in particular, has been pivotal in shaking up what we’ve come to expect from a working woman’s wardrobe.
“I hope she is a beacon of light for women everywhere [who] shows that you can look powerful, smart, and still stylish when dressing for the workplace,” Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo tells the Cut. “I often say that Olivia has shown how her world was evolving through color.”
No color is more closely associated with Olivia than white. “There are lots of reasons for that,” Paolo says, explaining that it all started in the pilot episode when Olivia wears a white Tory Burch trench coat to confront President Grant’s mistress, Amanda Tanner (Liza Weil).
“After we did that scene where Olivia was in the white Tory Burch and she was so powerful, I said at the time [that] we should try and soften her a bit,” Paolo explains. “She looks sweet dressed in white, then all of a sudden [she says] these mean words.”
The use of white as a character motif started there and grew throughout the show’s seven-season run, largely thanks to Rhimes, whose scripts often referenced the “white knight” and the “white hat.”
“So I thought, ‘Why don’t we play on white?’ because no one uses white on television,” Paolo says. “I go to other shows and people say to me, ‘Oh, I know you like white, but it’s harder to light.’ It’s a thing. But I just thought, ‘She is our heroine and why can’t she be in white? Let’s just give it a go.’”
Paolo credits Oliver Bokelberg, Scandal’s director of photography, for taking on the technical challenge of shooting a protagonist who wears white so frequently.
“He embraced it,” Paolo says. “Then it took off, and the Gladiators picked up on it. It’s sort of a symbiotic relationship because they say that white means this or that, and it informs your brain a little bit.”
Eleanor Turner, co-founder and creative officer of women’s workwear brand Argent, tells the Cut that white has become “the new power color” in part because of its place in history.
“It harkens back to the days of the suffragettes and that movement,” Turner says. “It represents purity, an effort to protect women’s rights, and gender parity. It makes a specific statement about female power.”
And in an often divisive place like D.C., white operates as a neutralizer of sorts.
“It’s nonpartisan,” explains Sali Christeson, Argent co-founder and CEO. “It brings people together. For us, it very much aligns with the conversation that’s happening right now around women in the workplace. It’s about achieving equal footing.”
And as an influential black woman holding her own in a world traditionally dominated by white men, Olivia Pope would have been well aware of that fact. So it’s no wonder that her ensembles often made a statement before she even said a word.
“She’s confident, and she derives that confidence from her clothes,” says Turner. “She demonstrates that dressing a certain way helps you show up for your role.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Washington looks fabulous in white. “Kerry is so — and she’s going to hate me for saying this — she’s stunning,” Paolo says. “And her skin, I mean, she glows. You know, some people just have a glow.”
Paolo tells the Cut that she and Washington were always more focused on Olivia’s state of mind than the clothes themselves. Perhaps that’s what made Olivia’s wardrobe so striking and effectual.
“Kerry and I don’t talk about the fashion,” Paolo reveals. “We talk about what’s going on with Olivia: What is her mindset in this moment? How will her costume relate to how she’s feeling? What message does this outfit give to the audience?”
One thing’s for sure: Olivia’s closet is decidedly designer. Prada handbags are her accessory of choice, which was influenced by Paolo’s own penchant for the Italian fashion house.
“That started in the very first fitting we had because I actually had a Prada bag in the room that was mine, and Kerry loved it,” Paolo says. “It was just the right purse for her to carry in one of the very first scenes. It was just Kerry and I in the room, so we said, ‘Let’s make her a Prada girl.’”
In addition to Prada, Olivia’s wardrobe has featured just about every major label you can think of. In earlier seasons, favorites were Armani, Escada, and Valentino. As the series progressed, Paolo explains, we see her in more architectural pieces by Dior, Tom Ford, and Victoria Beckham, to name a few.
“Her look evolved and became sleek and sometimes very dark in tone,” Paolo says. “However by the finale, we were back with old friends such as Burberry and Ralph Lauren.”
In the series finale, one of Olivia’s last looks was — surprise! — a white Burberry coat paired with a black Prada handbag.
“Shonda had made it clear where we were headed, and she even put notes into the final script about Olivia and her final look,” Paolo says. “Between Shonda and her words — and then Kerry and her elegance — almost every piece of clothing was a joy to add to the closet. And we laughed a lot, which is an added bonus.”