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When ABC’s Scandal premiered in 2012, the show’s heroine, Olivia Pope, was the first black female lead in a network TV drama in almost 40 years. Played by Kerry Washington, she joined ABC’s Thursday night lineup as a DC political operative and crisis manager. And dressed in belted trench coats, tailored pants, and 4-inch stilettos, she reinvented what a powerful woman in Washington could look like — especially as a woman of color.
This week, the political drama created by Shonda Rhimes comes to a close after seven roller-coaster seasons. The show was a tumultuous, soapy drama filled with increasingly more ridiculous twists and turns, and it bordered on campy at times. But to me, the show’s biggest cultural contribution was putting a woman of color front and center as a powerful leader, political operative, and executive who simultaneously created a new standard for power dressing. And the show’s signature Olivia Pope style will live on even after the series finale airs this week.
Washington, DC, gets a bad rap for being unfashionable and stuffy: The plethora of government jobs with strict, conservative dress codes leads to lots of gray suits and little room for creativity. When Scandal premiered, I was a mid-20s professional woman living in DC and working a series of corporate jobs in tall, nondescript office towers in the District suburbs. I didn’t consider myself fashionable or really understand why I should care about clothing beyond making sure I had something professional to wear every day.
I cycled through a lot of cheap ballet flats, Gap T-shirts, and Express black pants, bought at the mall in Pentagon City. (When I showed up for my first day of work at my first DC job in 2009, I wore an all-Express outfit of a blue blouse and black pants.) I did love a good blazer — it was the one article of clothing that instantly made me feel more confident at work — but on my entry-level salary, all my blazers at the time were from The Limited and Old Navy.
All of that is to explain just why Olivia Pope felt so refreshing when the show arrived on our TV screens in 2012: She was an ambitious, career-driven woman of color in Washington working in perhaps the most hallowed political institution of them all — the White House — yet she found a way to observe strict, conservative dress codes while simultaneously looking glamorous, powerful, and even a little bit feminine in a male-dominated world.
For young professional women in DC, “Olivia Pope style” was aspirational. It was a thing we envied and wanted to emulate, even if our limited budgets meant we shopped at the mall instead of hunting down the designer labels that ABC outfitted Kerry Washington in. Her style was so popular that the show’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo, launched a Scandal-inspired clothing line in collaboration with The Limited, one of the very same mall brands I could actually afford to shop from in my mid-20s. The limited-run collection, launched in 2014, was so popular with young female fans of the show that Paolo and The Limited launched a second Scandal collection in 2015.
Her style was timeless, classic, and conservative, but unquestionably glamorous. She was a pants girl, not a dress girl, because comfort matters when you live in a city where you walk everywhere. She wore sharply tailored blazers and black Armani pants and always had her signature Prada purse slung over her arm.
Even when she was dressed down at home, she favored cozy oversize shawl-like cardigans and sweaters that screamed “menocore.” Her wardrobe was heavy on neutrals, but she wasn’t afraid of the occasional bright pop of color either. And the coats — the coats! Every time Olivia Pope stormed down the White House halls toward the Oval Office in a belted coat and heels, Prada purse dangling off her arm, preparing to put the bumbling President Fitzgerald Grant in his place, she was a vision.
That’s the image of Olivia Pope that I’ll remember most: a confident, powerful black woman striding into the Oval Office in her tailored suit and trench coat. This was a woman who meant business. She was strong, and powerful, and badass but could still rock pastel dress pants.
She proved that serious people can still care about fashion, and that fashion choices can quietly speak volumes about who we are. Having a high-powered political job didn’t mean her wardrobe had to be boring — and for a lot of young women in DC, she became our new style icon, something to aspire to as we moved up in our careers. I no longer live in DC, and I still can’t afford her Armani pants and Max Mara coats, but I’ve at least upgraded to J.Crew blazers these days.
And with that, here’s a final farewell look back at some of Olivia Pope’s most memorable outfits over the past seven years, from her campaign trail beginnings to her final meetings in season seven.