Bringing together outfits worn by music and movie stars throughout history, the new Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) exhibition Diva aims to reclaim a term that’s taken on negative connotations in recent years.
Showcasing more than 250 items, the show includes garments seen on Rihanna, Beyonce, Cher, Tina Turner, Elton John and Marilyn Monroe.
Visitors are given a headset to wear during their visit which automatically plays a soundtrack or song associated with the era or artist they’re looking at.
“The starting point was curiosity,” says curator Kate Bailey.
“I was really fascinated about the term diva… And questioning why this term had become so negative, but also how it’s been embraced and used across different genres.”
Split into three acts spread over two floors, the exhibition traces the chronology of divas, starting from the 19th century with legendary opera singers such as Jenny Lind and Maria Callas.
“The origin of the term is goddess, and I think that got lost over time,” Bailey explains.
“It’s these artists with a strong sense of self who are boundary-pushers, who are trailblazers, who know where they are, where they’re going to, and who use their voice and their platform to create this extraordinary legacy.”
Long before celebrities and designers began attempting to outdo each other with their extravagant Met Gala ensembles, audiences have been poring over the fashion choices of entertainers.
“Even from the early prima donnas in the 19th century, their image, their identity, how they dressed, what they wore on stage [and] their off-stage lives were always fascinating,” says Bailey.
“So I think you can’t separate the costume and fashion from the diva and their voice.”
As well as delving into the V&A archive – selecting, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s black dress from Some Like It Hot – Bailey was tasked with gathering garments from the private collections of global megastars such as Adele, Lizzo, Pink and Dame Shirley Bassey.
“We’re dealing with a lot of people who are extraordinarily busy,” she says of the curation process.
She believes what helped convince A-listers to lend their precious clothing was the exhibition “reclaiming the term [diva] and being able to have an opportunity to create this sort of Valhalla of creativity and women and icons and divas and beyond gender”.
Rihanna was “very, very generous” to loan five internet-breaking looks, including the papal-inspired gown and hat she wore to the Catholic-themed 2018 Met Gala and the crystal-embellished blush pink gown worn to the 2014 CFDA Awards.
“That Adam Selman look with the 200,000 Swarovski crystals was such a moment where that image went ‘boom’ on Instagram,” Bailey says.
“It’s a remarkable thing for people to be able to see that up close – and something like the pope look as well, which became such a sensation, and it looks even more remarkable in real life.”
A series of sequinned and feathered costumes created by legendary designer Bob Mackie for Cher and Tina Turner took on even greater meaning when Turner died in May this year, while the exhibition was being staged.
“We were mounting those looks when she passed,” Bailey says, explaining that the singer – who was reportedly abused by husband Ike Turner – is an “important part” of the diva narrative.
“She had such a difficult time – she got through it. Bob Mackie, with his designs, gave her that power to own the stage.
“When you put the headphones on I think it’s quite moving because you can stand there, look at the ‘flame dress’ and you’re listening to [1988 hit] The Best.”
She hopes visitors will enjoy the spectacular fashion and empowering message behind the glamour.
“I want them to look to think about the diva over time to think about the struggles… The relationship with patriarchy, how and why it became associated with negativity.”
Plus, they’re treated to incredible music from start to finish.
“There’s a very deliberate choice of exit track, which is Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out,” Bailey says.
“We need a bit of joy and feathers and fun, as well as that sense of diva power.”
The DIVA exhibition will take place at the V&A from June 24, 2023 to April 7, 2024.