“Thanks to social media, the role of the costume designer is slowly coming out of the shadows,” says award-winning costume designer Lyn Paolo, addressing the crowd at our How to Make It in Fashion conference in Los Angeles last week.
And so are the costume designers themselves, as their shows (Revenge, Girls, to name a few) continue to garner attention for the clothes their characters wear. Some have gone so far as to launch clothing lines either on their own or in conjunction with the shows they costume. And despite the fact that Paolo is currently responsible for the gorgeous, work-appropriate wardrobe of Scandal’s Olivia Pope — which many look to for inspiration in figuring out their own wear-to-work wardrobes — she has no interest in adding the role of fashion designer to her resumé, even though she’s gotten “so many offers lately,” she says.
“I feel strongly I’m not a fashion designer. I know what I’m good at, and I love [costume design],” says Paolo. Though she has no desire to launch a full contemporary fashion line, Paolo says may one day do a glove line, because she’s “obsessed by them” (as anyone who’s seen Scandal can easily believe).
Scandal is a very fashion-driven show. Kerry Washington, who plays Pope, is frequently costumed in envy-inducing (and usually white or cream-colored) designer duds, and the show has even inked a partnership with Saks to curate is window displays. But the role of a costume designer is not all custom Armani dresses and Prada bags. There are a lot of challenges.
And it can be a somewhat thankless job. As Paolo, who has also worked on ER and West Wing, put it, costume designers are “silent and often overlooked artists.” While people love the clothes on Scandal, it’s far from a shoe-in to win an Emmy as it’s less fantastical than the shows that are typically nominated. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work, though. In fact, Paolo says designing the costumes for Shameless — a Showtime series that depicts an average-looking, working-class family living in Chicago’s south side — is even more difficult. “You get no kudos for making people look poor,” Paolo says. The costumes on that show are subject to aging processes, which are apparently really hard to do well. (“Everyone steals the best agers,” Paolo says.)
The main goal of a costume designer, she explains, is to be true to the script and create a character through clothing — and do that with time constraints and a budget. She gave an example of a vintage gown Paolo and her Scandal team had to completely reconstruct — which was obviously costly, but it ended up being perfect for the moment. “I had to make the decision; I had to be wiling to put my neck out there. You have to be strong enough to stand up for what you believe.” Luckily, in the end, “ABC was not too upset with how much money we spent.”
Standing up for yourself was a strong part of Paolo’s message. In fact she went so far as to encourage the audience to pick up a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, emphasizing that being a successful costume designer requires much more than just talent. “You also have to be organized and you have to be a leader,” she says. “You have to be fierce and you have to be fiscally responsible. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve.”
Another difficulty is getting into the biz in the first place. “There are many different ways,” Paolo says, none of them guaranteed to work. You can assist a costume designer, who will either teach you or abuse you depending on how good of a mentor she or he is. She also suggests getting into “the union,” of which there are two costume designers can belong to: the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892 and the Motion Picture Costumers Union, Local 705.
You’ll also want to be sure it’s the line of work you really want to get into, as there are some drawbacks. “My parents struggled with my job insecurity,” Paolo admits. “Every time a job finishes, they think I’m never going to work again.” On top of that, the hours aren’t exactly nine to five. Since having children, she consciously chooses TV gigs, like Scandal, so that she doesn’t have to travel as frequently as she would if she were doing movies. “It is going to impact your personal life,” she says, recalling a recent 18-hour work day. She also recalls waking up at 1:45 a.m. to read a script the moment it became available so that she could prepare for shooting the next day.
Paolo also reveals what we’ve all wondered about costumes: what happens to them after they’re worn? Do the actors get to keep them? As it turns out, they don’t, at least not anymore. Now that studios have gotten more corporate, the clothes go into an archive from which other shows can pull. Though, apparently there are loopholes. When ER ended, actor John Stamos “got his housekeeper’s truck and took everything from Warner Brothers,” Paolo says, laughing.
At the end of the talk, one bold audience member asked, savvily, if Paolo had ever had to deal with an actress who became pregnant mid-show. (There have been widespread rumors lately that Washington is pregnant.) But Paolo dodged the question like a pro.