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From “Shameless” To “Scandal” – Costume Designer Lyn Paolo Weaves A Contemporary Tale

Costume Designer Lyn Paolo has enjoyed defining Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) evolution through her clothing.

By: Marjorie Galas

Costume designers who design pieces for period or futuristic use creativity to overcome numerous hurdles.  Designing costumes for a futurist world allows a costume designer to fully explore their imagination, often testing new types of fabric or advanced technology.  Period design, while confined by a specific point in time, provides opportunities to delve into research and creatively model clothing of the past.  What’s so challenging about contemporary costumes – costumes that reflect what the general population wears every day?

“For me it is one of the most difficult to work with for two reasons,” said costume designer Lyn Paolo.  “First, everyone dresses with the clothes in their closet every day.  We all have strong opinion about these clothes.  Second, there is so much nuance, it’s tricky.”

Paolo has had the pleasure of designing costumes for a wide range of film and television projects.  They range from last year’s culinary feature “Burnt” to the World War II series “Homefront” – for which she received two Emmys and an additional nomination.  She also received an Emmy nomination for her work in “The West Wing.”  However, it was her fifteen seasons with the hit series “ER” where she feels she learned the most about contemporary costume design.

Set in a Chicago hospital, the series not only followed featured doctors and nurses wearing their scrubs and lab attire; it featured the lives of these individuals outside the hospital walls.  In addition to the patients entering the hospital from every imaginable walk of life, Paolo also define the unique personal lifestyles of the medical professionals.

“You were dealing with doctors who had money, those who just finished school, plus all the victims.  There was a little bit of everything,” said Paolo.

Currently, Paolo is working on three different contemporary series that run the gamut in social and economic standing: “Shameless”, “Scandal” and the upcoming “Animal Kingdom.”

Recently wrapping her seventh season with “Shameless,” Paolo remains consistently challenged and inspired by her work on the series.  Featuring an alcoholic and his six children trying to get by as best they can, Paolo focuses on creating the most “fashion forward” costume design for the family’s limited financial means.

“People in poverty don’t want to look sad,” said Paolo.  “I work to keep it fun, fresh and fashion forward.”

Aging fabrics is crucial to a show like “Shameless.”  A shirt may, through the course of the story, be worn for multiple years, and then get handed down to the children.  Paolo and her team must be mindful of this when working on the costume design.  Said shirt must reflect the wear and tear attained through the years.  The color of the garment must also change to reflect excessive breakdown over the years.  If a child is wearing “the shirt” it must have the appearance of being outworn by another already.

The comedy and action in a series like “Shameless” also requires many duplicates of wardrobe items.  She’ll ensure there are anywhere between six to ten doubles of each item worn in a scene.  While it may not seem like there would be a great deal of wardrobe for a series about a family on the brink of poverty, the costume team needs an extremely generous amount of storage space for “Shameless.”

“Bill’s (William Macy, who plays father Frank Gallagher) wardrobe is 25 to 30 feet long,” said Paolo.

Highly contrasting the grubby, trying to look their best characters in “Shameless” are the high end Washington, D.C. ensemble in “Scandal.”  Currently working on her sixth season with the show, Paolo particularly enjoys the constant evolution of the characters.  This is particularly noticeable in Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the way she’s been able to illustrate the character’s personal growth through the costume design.

“She started out not knowing exactly who she was, wearing these 50s weathergirl type outfits,” said Paolo.  “Now she looks more like a dominatrix with the styles and the leather.”

While a television’s production budget and schedule – Paolo and her team have eight days to pull over 200 “Scandal” costume changes – prohibit building a lot of the clothing, the men’s shirts are mostly created by hand.  The textures and fits of store brought shirts don’t work on camera, so Paolo turns to an L.A. based shirt maker with whom she’s collaborated for many years.  Although many articles of clothing are sourced, there is a great deal of alteration and tailoring that takes place.  In some cases clothing is completely taken apart and re-stitched to capture the curves and shapes of the actors’ body types.

Although Paolo has custom built dresses and gowns in “Shameless,” such as a 80s/Princess Diana inspired wedding gown worn by Emmy Rossum’s character, designer attire is featured on the wealthy women in “Scandal.”

“It’s like going to fairyland, shopping for Giorgio Armani and high end labels,” said Paolo. “Now the character is ahead of the curve.  Designers reach out to me and give us a first look before the pieces are released.”

Always eager to keep her vision alert and inspired, Paolo joined the upcoming series “Animal Kingdom.”  Inspired by the storyline of the 2010 indie feature, the series revolves around a young man who moves in with mob-like relatives and becomes immersed in their dangerous world.  Set in a Southern California beach town, Paolo is enjoying fleshing out the costume design for the members of a dangerous, criminal family that are “hiding in plain sight.”

Keeping everything afloat on all her projects are the team members she surrounds herself with.  She worked with the majority of the same crew throughout her 15 years on “E.R.” with some additions over the years as the series grew.  While she notes that the nature of film and television requires relocation and not everyone’s schedule will allow them full availability for all projects, there are roughly twenty people she’s collaborated with throughout the years.  She particularly enjoys fostering growth amongst her staff.  When she finds a hard working production assistant, she’ll teach them her methods and allows them to climb the professional ladder.

“When I see these PA’s, I ask them for two years commitment,” said Paolo. “I worked hard to get into the union and know how challenging those opportunities can be.  Many of the PAs (that remained committed) are now working with me as costumers.”