Exhibition Review: DIVA, V&A Museum, Open until 7 April 2024. Tickets £20. Book tickets here.
[Disclosure: I attended the press day on 20 June for this exhibition for free, for the purposes of this review.]
DIVA, the V&A’s new showcase exhibition, which has been 5 years in the planning, finally opens on Saturday. The exhibition explores the concept of the diva through the costumes, artefacts and stories of over 60 individual superstar performers.
From left, Elton John's 50th birthday look with wig and boat hat, designed by Sandy Powell, 1997 and Rihanna's Maison Marginal dress for the Met Gala, 2018.
From the very first use of the term in an opera context in the early 19th century through to the contemporary reclamation of the term to cover culture makers of all genders, the exhibition is absolutely jam packed with information, photos, film, costumes, and artefacts.
Janelle Monaé words these "vulva pants" for the Pink music video in 2018, designed by Duran Lantink.
The exhibition is divided into three separate “scenes”. The first scene covers the evolution of the term diva, starting with the idea of the diva as opera goddess incarnate. This section follows the diva’s trajectory through her increasing economic and political independence to finish at the intensifying negative connotations of the term.
This first scene is laid out on the ground floor. It’s dark, low ceilinged and almost claustrophobically packed with things. This is an extremely text heavy part of the exhibition – with pages and pages of words accompanying each exhibit – almost impossible to read if you plan to move through the exhibition at a reasonable pace.
What really stood out for me in this first section was the early film footage of some of the divas, including snippets of showgirl turned activist Josephine Baker, silent film star, Mary Pickford, Marilyn Munroe and Marlene Dietrich. It’s amazing to be reminded just how charismatic, alluring and subversive these women were.
Except from the 1933 film, I'm No Angel, showing Mae West speaking her famous line.
The second scene, on the next floor up, opens out in a truly spectacular manner. After the confined, womb like setting of the first section, the initial experience of this next section overwhelms with an excess of space, sparkle and light.
A view of the second part of the exhibition.
Set under the V&A’s huge, domed ceilings, this section is divided into six parts, each of which traces the progression of the term diva from its positive reclamation through to the celebration of diva tropes in the display of costumes from this century’s diva mega stars.
Section displaying the diva tropes through costumes worn by Cher, Tina Turner and others.
It is this second section which displays extraordinarily dazzling artefacts from some of the world’s most celebrated divas, including costumes from Lady Gaga, Tina Turner, Cher, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Rhianna, Prince, Elton John, Billie Eilish, Björk, Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Lizzo, and Lil Nas X to name just a few. Once again, there is so much packed into a relatively small space, that the initial experience is slightly disorientating.
Customised shoes worn by Prince circa 1994.
The final scene is made up of a video piece, projected onto the domes of the V&A’s ceiling – showcasing individual divas as superstar comets, on a blazing trajectory through the universe. While this scene is more symbolic than informative, it is a spectacular supplement to all the costumes displayed underneath.
Björk's costumes and accessories.
The V&A’s thesis on the diva is extremely carefully thought out and academically rigorous, though I felt it a very Western-centric approach. I would have loved to see some genuine exploration of diva-like concepts across cultures. How much fun would it have been to see the Western, Eurocentric concept of the diva discussed alongside other diva-like concepts, such as the “onna-gata” in Japan, the “idol” in Korea, and “tarab queen” in Middle Eastern and Arab cultures?! It would have given the exhibition a truly global coverage.
Billie Eilish's costume and in the background, purple dress worn by Lady Gaga.
For an ordinary visitor like me, the glitz and glamour of the exhibition was almost too overwhelming – I was only able to start making sense of the thread after head curator, Kate Bailey, explained the concepts underpinning the displays.
Costume worn by Rhianna.
Diva is a monumental, overwhelming and larger than life experience.
Thank you very much to head curator, Kate Bailey, for taking the time to talk to me about the exhibition.