How 'Queen Charlotte' Costume Designer Lyn Paolo and Allure … – Shondaland.com
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Shondaland’s Seat at the Table initiative again helps to bring an artisan to the fore with a can’t-miss collaboration.
When Lyn Paolo moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, she did so with a degree in English literature, an American husband who wanted to be a director, two suitcases between the both of them, and not a friend in sight. She had wanted to work in education but found out that she’d have to reclassify in L.A. after having just completed a five-year degree. So instead, to make ends meet, she picked up work in commercial production as a production coordinator, doing craft services and any other position on set for which she could get hired.
“I was sort of drawn to the costume department,” says Paolo, who learned everything she knows on the job, working her way from assistant to head of massive prestige costume departments for ER, The West Wing, Little Fires Everywhere, Maid, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Inventing Anna, and most recently, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, her work for which earned her a 2023 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Period Costumes For A Series.
It’s this latest endeavor that has brought Paolo a unique opportunity to be a part of Seat at the Table, the Shondaland initiative that seeks to give creatives — many of whom are expert artisans and craftspeople — a chance to bring their artistry to life via commercial partnerships. As part of Seat at the Table, Paolo has partnered with Shondaland and Allure Bridals to create a collection of wedding dresses inspired by the gorgeous gowns of Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. In both series, the character of Queen Charlotte has spawned countless conversations, and many of those have been about her wardrobe — that unparalleled opulent and regal aesthetic, which will now help to bring a stunning selection of bridal gowns to the modern-day bride.
“There was a lot of discussion with Betsy [Beers] and Shonda [Rhimes], and then ultimately with Sandie [Bailey], around what would I like to do, about what was I passionate about,” says Paolo of the initial talks with the Shondaland team about how to bring her designs to life. “And I kept saying, ‘I think we’d be crazy not to do a bridal line.’ I think I’ve been saying that for three years actually, and not for myself, but I kept bringing it up in discussions. Then I went to help with Bridgerton season two, and I kept saying to everyone who would listen, ‘You’re crazy that you don’t have a bridal collection!’ It’s the whole zeitgeist about this show — finding that romance in your life. So, when Shondaland reached out to say that they were considering a bridal line and that they wanted me to be a part of it, I was beyond excited.”
Allure has teased us with three exclusive sketches from the collaboration, all designed by Paolo. Though just a hint of what’s to come, these three gowns help to imagine what we can expect from the full line, which will offer brides the opportunity to step into their own Georgian- and Regency-era romance. The full collection is set to debut this December with prices ranging from $1,600 to $3,000 and sold in bridal salons worldwide.
VALENTINA VALENTINI: Did you always know that you wanted to be a costume designer?
LYN PAOLO: You know, I really didn’t. I grew up in the northeast of England, and though I had an amazing education, I didn’t have any idea that this world — costume design for film and TV — was a real thing. I would watch movies and television a lot, specifically with my mother, who was a huge movie buff, and did the typical thing that lots of designers do: I made clothes for my Sindy doll. We didn’t have Barbies in England at that time; we had a doll called Sindy, and I would make clothes for Sindy and my grandmother. My mom didn’t sew, but both grandmothers did. I was always creating and sketching; I would draw for hours, making clothes for my dolls. But it didn’t occur to me that this was a career path at all.
VV: So, after moving to L.A. and realizing that the costume department caught your eye, what happened next?
LP: I was working in music videos and commercials in the late ’80s, early ’90s as an assistant in the costume department, and a friend recommended I talk to Chris Chulack — someone I still work with and am very close to today. He was going to be a line producer on a show called Homefront. I had an interview with the producers, Lynn Latham and Bernie Lechowick, and because I didn’t have a lot of experience but was really passionate about working in costumes, I just said to them, “If you give me this opportunity, I want to take it, and I want to win an Emmy.” And I can’t believe I had such hubris! I was like 23 or 24. And they were like, “Well, we love your passion!” And they gave me the job of costume supervisor. At the time, there were no costume designers in television to speak of.
VV: So, did you win that Emmy?
LP: We won an Emmy. And then the next year, we won the Emmy again. But then, the show was canceled. That’s when Chris introduced me to John Wells — they were doing a pilot together at Warner Brothers, a little show called ER. And eventually, it was John who introduced me to Shonda Rhimes. So, that is my entire career arc — those three people: Chris Chulack, John Wells, Shonda Rhimes. People say it’s not luck, that you have to work super-hard. And you do have to work super-hard, but, boy, I was lucky. I met lovely people, and they took care of me.
VV: Of course, you have to work hard, and you have to be talented. If you’re not, nobody’s going to rehire you. But in Hollywood, it really is all about the people, the connections, those interpersonal relationships.
LP: Young costume designers just starting out ask me all the time about navigating the industry. In fact, I just had lunch with someone, and she said that she wanted to stay on one show for a year and then move to another. And I asked her if she loved who she was working with, and she said that she did but that she wanted to build her career. And I said, “I don’t think it’s about building a career; I think it’s about building relationships and staying with people who treat you well.” But this generation has a different point of view. They think they should hop around. I didn’t hop around; I stayed because I loved working for the people I was with and they valued me. I stayed because I had children, and I wanted to stay in Los Angeles and not travel. I did get offered great opportunities to go do features, but I wanted to be home with my kids and work with people who I knew were decent humans.
VV: So, you never ended up going to school or had any formal training for costume design?
LP: No, I learned on the job. I took sketching classes, but in my younger years, I got to work under so many amazing costume designers who came out of Carnegie Mellon or FIDM. But I was always a little insecure about that, not having formal education in design. But now that I’m older and I look back on it, I think I had a better education because I started at the bottom of a set and worked my way up. I did every single job. I didn’t come out of college and go, “I’m a costume designer!” like often happens. A CEO of a company doesn’t leave college and say, “I’m a CEO.” You have to work your way up. I mean, fashion or design school will teach you about research and design, but they don’t teach you the day-to-day of how to manage a crew, how to speak to your set team, how to talk to a producer, how to do a budget. I think you need to give five to eight years of just learning on the job before you can be whole. There may be someone who’s so fabulously talented and amazing that they don’t need that, but I think it served me well. I can honestly say to a crew member that I really do understand what they’re going through because I’ve done it.
VV: Okay, let’s talk about Seat at the Table now. When did you first hear about this initiative, and what were your thoughts on it?
LP: It wasn’t called Seat at the Table at the time, but we did the Scandal collaboration with the Limited in 2014. The next time I heard about the initiative specifically was when I heard within the Shondaland family that [Bridgerton season one costume designer] Ellen Mirojnick was going to be doing this amazing jewelry collection with Monica Rich Kosann. I’m a huge fan of Ellen, and I love to pick her brain forever; I email her and ask her questions all the time. So, I was thrilled because of that, but also because it means a lot to costume designers. I know that Matchbook Company and Linda Kearns have been working for years to get some acknowledgement of what costume designers do, and I see these integrations from shows with brands that have not included the costume designer, and they invariably fail because they’re not authentic. It’s some PR person within a network or a studio assuming that they know, but they don’t know. I think it’s remarkably smart, remarkably forward thinking of Shondaland and the whole team there, [Chief Innovation & Design Officer] Sandie [Bailey] and Shonda, to create this initiative because the brands need to understand that when a costume designer creates the look — and sure, there may be collaboration with the producer, the director, the actor, but the designer is the one to ultimately create the look — that it is important to include the person who did so in any integrations or outside collaborations.
VV: So, once the business side of the collaboration was in place, what has it been like for you in the creation and production of these gowns?
LP: It’s felt a bit like being on a TV show again in that I did so much research on bridal collections before creating any designs. I created a whole Pinterest page to wrap my head around it because unless you’re a bride, you’re not looking at any of that, are you? But to start, I would send these images and references I found to the Shondaland team, and they would share those with Netflix, who then began to reach out to brands to find the right partnership. Allure was just super-interested in working with us, and I have to say that in the same way that I had such a wonderful experience with the Limited with the Scandal collection, Allure has been amazing. They have listened, and they understand how important it is to us to have the tiny, little details for the bride — which I’m going to keep a secret for now! — that hearken back to Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte.
VV: And the three sample sketches — are those what we can expect from the full line of bridal dresses?
LP: Those three sample sketches just give an idea of silhouettes and are not indicative of the finished garment. They were a jumping-off point for discussion, and they’re more about how they relate to the gowns from the shows, trying to figure out how to truly take the 1761 silhouette from Queen Charlotte and the 1820 silhouette from Bridgerton. There are two very different silhouettes, obviously. Ultimately, Allure did love those sketches, one reason being that they were not too theatrical, which was always a consideration of how to translate what’s on the screen to the real world. I wanted to show Allure that it was possible to create a line that was based on the shows and the Bridgerton world but that also was accessible to the modern bride.
VV: Right. Because a bride isn’t necessarily looking for Bridgerton cosplay.
LP: Exactly. And we don’t want her to look like she’s in a Broadway show. I think melding those two worlds worked well because even on Queen Charlotte, whose costumes are based on historic shapes and silhouettes, we always wanted to make those gowns palatable to the modern eye while ensuring the historians would look at it and go, “Oh, wow. That’s pretty good.” But we also wanted them to look like something you could wear to the Met Ball. That was our whole thing — let’s make both sides of this coin work for everyone as best we can. You can never please everyone, obviously, but the creative discussions with Allure have been nothing short of amazing. And we’ve had a lot of back and forth with creative design, and we’ve discussed down to the tiniest detail the many small elements that we’re adding to these dresses that I think the Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte bride will love. But I shouldn’t really talk about it — not yet!
VV: We’ll follow back up with you in December for all the gorgeous details! For now, can you tell me what an initiative like this tangibly provides for creatives who have access to these kinds of collabs? Is it name recognition? Better opportunities for jobs down the line? Income?
LP: I think it’s all of that. But I will say that for me personally, it’s more about not having my work being taken from me and someone else modifying what I created without my creative input. I think most creative people couldn’t care less about the other elements that you mentioned, though certainly financially, it has helped a bit — I got a fee for doing the work — but I think for most costume designers, it is that you’ve created something that is your baby, and you worked very hard on it, and then someone took that thing and gave it away to someone else. The issue with intellectual property has been ongoing for some time now, along with pay parity. But if you create a superhero costume that then goes on to be sold and marketed and created into cosplay and on dolls and in games and all these different merchandising avenues, but then the costume designer doesn’t even get a thank you, that’s not right. For most creative people — production design, makeup, even directors, everybody — the fact that someone could take something that you created and then do something with it that you have no control over or no input in is quite a difficult thing for all of us. It’s like someone taking your painting, and then they paint over it.
VV: Is there anything else you would like to add while we wait with bated breath for the full bridal gown line?
LP: I think I want to say that isn’t it remarkable that Shonda’s done this? That she is creating this space? And isn’t it unfortunate that there are not more opportunities like this for you and for me, for the creative people out there? Because it’s just gut-wrenching to see our work taken from us and then no one even knowing that it was yours in the first place.
And look, I get it. We work in a business; we sign over our rights to our IP. But if you want, as a business, to have your product be authentic to the original design, it doesn’t cost you a lot to include the creative team, not in the grand scheme of things. And it would save you so much time and money in the long run. But most importantly, in the end, it makes you look good, and it makes the fans so much more interested. Because fans know who costume designers are, they know who production designers are, and they’re fans of them too, beyond just being fans of the show. So, bringing them authentic designs from their favorite shows is only going to be beneficial in the end.
Valentina Valentini is a London-based entertainment, travel, and food writer and is also a senior contributor to Shondaland. Elsewhere, she has written for Vanity Fair, Vulture, Variety, Thrillist, Heated, and The Washington Post. Her personal essays can be read in the Los Angeles Times and Longreads, and her tangents and general complaints can be seen on Instagram at @ByValentinaV.
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