Lyn Paolo
Photo by Angela Weiss

Lyn Paolo: “I love creating those worlds”

Short Profile

Name: Lyn Paolo
Place of birth: Sunderland, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Costume designer

Ms. Paolo, do you think costume design is an under-appreciated art form?

I wouldn’t say that it’s not appreciated, but I would say that in the past where television is concerned, the audience wasn’t always aware of the costume department. Costume designers historically did not work in television, they only usually worked on film. The audience assumed and still, to some degree, assumes that the actor shows up looking that way. I would hear actors being asked questions like, “Where did you get that outfit from the show?” (Laughs) And you'd be thinking, “There's a whole team that’s got that out!” On Scandal, Kerry Washington is not Olivia Pope! On Shameless, Bill Macy does not look like Frank, he doesn't turn up looking like that. So I think early on in my career, there was that kind of misunderstanding.

But that kind of reaction has definitely changed thanks to social media. You’ve got Instagram accounts dedicated to the costumes in different films and TV shows, tutorials on how to dress like certain characters, where to find duplicates of iconic costume pieces…

Right, I also see a lot of references to Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder in terms of dressing for work. The color palette that we had embraced on Scandal and the dressing the way Olivia did for business has become very in vogue… I’ve also gotten tons of DMs asking about the designer pieces on Inventing Anna, and the interesting thing with that character is that we had her own Instagram account to draw inspiration from, right down to the earrings, the shoes, everything. And then there’s the costume and cosplay link as well; this week one of my kids sent me a link on how to make Halloween costumes for Queen Charlotte. I love all of that. In the past, it was always about film or music videos. I was definitely the MTV generation. So whatever Madonna wore, I wore. But our world has evolved. We are enjoying a golden age of television, so costume design in television is definitely being recognized more now.

“Television has just become a little bit more adventurous, hasn’t it? It’s on a bigger scale, budgets have gotten bigger, and incrementally, television has become much more complicated.”

Do you think that has to do with the fact that we’re seeing more fantasy and period pieces on television?

Well, I think that is in some instances true, but I also feel that television has just become a little bit more adventurous, hasn't it? It’s on a bigger scale, budgets have gotten bigger, and incrementally, television has become much more complicated. When you look at something like Queen Charlotte, or Bridgerton, or even Game of Thrones, the cinematic detail that goes into those shows, how the worlds are built, the layering that goes on, the size of the cast… It’s like a 60-minute movie every week. We’ve definitely gotten more ambitious.

These multi-season epic stories also allow for major arcs and evolutions for their characters — with the costumes often changing along with them.

That's one of the reasons why I like television because you have such a long time to work on a character — whereas on a movie, at the most you have maybe eight months, maybe a bit longer. If you think, for example, about how Quinn Perkins evolved on Scandal, she started with this very prim, proper, sort of secretarial style, and by the end, she was very rock star, black leather, Vivienne Westwood. So you have this extreme arc that is also very nuanced. That’s the trick! You don't know what the character is going to go through when you start on a show, and you get to grow their costumes with them. That’s one of the joys of costume design. I love creating those worlds, it's just magical. I absolutely love walking on set every day and watching it all happen. Film crews are spectacular in that sense.

It must also be really special to work on a show over the years and really grow that relationship with your fellow crew members.

Absolutely, it’s funny, just before we started talking today, I was speaking with Philip Hayman, who's been my supervisor for over 20 years. I mean, most of my crew are people that I have worked with for a very, very long time. And that is a great joy for me. It’s something I tell the younger generation of costume designer and those who are just getting into this business: build your relationships. Because hopping around from job to job, you don't really get to know the person you're working for or with. Most of the shows that I work on, and most of the paths out into other types of costume design, have come from my early relationships in this business. I mean, John Wells was the one who first told Shonda Rhimes that he loved working with me on The West Wing. It’s all about those building blocks, isn't it? Then you build your own community.

“Film is a communication art. We’re communicating to the audience, we’re telling you a story. It’s actually kind of magical, the discourse we get to be a part of.”

Does that also extend to the cast that you work with? Apparently you and Kerry Washington would meet every week to explore her character’s plotlines and determine her costumes on Scandal.

Sure. With Kerry, sometimes we had up to 15 different costume changes within one episode, and we only had an hour a week to discuss them so we became very efficient. It can be hard to find that time, so a lot of the time you build a closet on episodic television, so that you can pull from it. But in terms of that collaboration, of course, you should do that with every single actor you work with. That’s something that is so important. You work with your actor — and that might just be a day player, somebody who comes on and has five lines, or plays cop number seven… But it’s important to give those day players the same respect that you give your stars, to really hear what they're saying.

That sounds like a lot of things to consider, a fine balance between your expertise and the needs of actor and the character.

I just think it's a lot of communication. I mean, film is a communication art. We're communicating to the audience, we're telling you a story; I'm in the fitting room with an actor, and they're telling me their point of view about a character. We try to do a lot of talking about it, how can we work together to create what’s written on the page. It’s actually kind of magical, the discourse we get to be a part of.

You weren’t a “classically trained” costume designer, you actually went to school for literature. So when did your connection to the magic of film and TV start?

I’ve always loved movies and loved television. My mom was a huge movie person, every Saturday morning, we would go to the movies together. I'm a huge movie buff, I still watch a lot of black and white films. But you’re right that I fell into this career. I love it, but it was not a plan. I mean, I wanted to be a school teacher! But I moved to Los Angeles and had slowly started working my way up in production and eventually came to costume design. But I was very insecure about not having gone to school, not having gotten a degree from Emerson or The New School. At 22 years old, I felt self-conscious of that. But I think the job itself is such an amazing education, that now I don’t feel like that at all. I genuinely love what I do for a living, which, to me, is the greatest gift.