‘Divas’ are pop culture icons whose influence resonates far beyond their singing talent.
Coined in a male-dominated 19th century to describe female opera singers with ‘godsent’ voices, today, the word diva portrays modern-day goddesses whose incomparable voices are matched by charisma, perfection and an other-worldly sense of style.
The V&A exhibition showcases a selection of costumes worn on stage or in movies ranging from the cultish to the sublime that one discovers while listening (thanks to high-quality headphones) to the diva’s magnificent performances.
The exhibition starts with the rise of leading female artists in the 1830s: either ‘prima donnas’ – opera singers – or theatre stars with an adoring fan base and well-known repertoire. It is captivating to hear an old recording of the actress Sarah Bernhardt while performing on stage. Or to follow the ups and downs of 1950s Hollywood movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe, whose iconic little black dress from Some Like it Hot is on display.
Fame allows divas to become independent, rich and famous. Their status challenged the traditional perception of feminity at a time women were second-rate citizens. ‘When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man,’ Bette Davis famously said. ‘When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a b****’.
Meanwhile, looking at La Traviata’s Violetta outfit while listening to the powerful voice of the ultimate opera diva Maria Callas brings on a chill. Her intensity on stage, reputation for perfectionism, and tragic ending add another dimension to what defines a diva: a woman who has no choice but to give it all to succeed.
Through the threads of music and costume, one understands how the past two centuries of divas paved the way for today's Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.
Arriving on the exhibition's first floor, one is struck by the splendour and assertiveness of the stage costumes. Today's megastars have broken free from the male-dominated music industry of the past to rise in splendour.
From Björk’s other-worldly gown, worn for her performance in Reykjavik in 2021, Cher’s Egyptian goddess costume worn during a 1987 Music Award or Tina Turner’s Flame Dress designed by Bob Mackie in 1977, outfits are not only spectacular, but also boundary-pushing. ‘Don’t ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are,’ says Lady Gaga. There is no limit to self-expression and ambition for the modern-day diva.
One section features boundary-pushing divas such as Grace Jones, Prince and Elton John, and how they have emancipated themselves from the limitations of traditional representation, using costume, androgyny and performance style as tools through which to express relationships with sexuality, gender and the body.
Rihanna’s formidable Met Gala black coat-dress designed by Demna for Balenciaga adds a final touch to this stunning exhibition. The singer-turned-multi-millionaire and entrepreneur has taken complete control of her image and career, paving the way for a powerful future for women.
Contemplating the outfit while listening to her hit song Umbrella, one can’t help feeling utterly fascinated.
|What||DIVA exhibition, V&A review|
|Where||V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
24 Jun 23 – 07 Apr 24, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM