DIVA Exhibition: Sequinned Power Unveiled

DIVA Exhibition: 24 Jun 2023 – 7 Apr 2024, V&A London

The V&A presents DIVA, the first-ever exhibition to celebrate iconic performers’ unparalleled power and creative prowess from the 19th century to today. This breathtaking exhibition is a testament to the unforgettable personal narratives of creativity, ambition, and perseverance that have underscored the meteoric rise of the world’s most iconic divas.

DIVA explores the narratives of these remarkable women, from the enchanting goddesses of opera and mesmerising silent movie stars to the sirens of the silver screen and today’s global megastars. The exhibition goes beyond surface-level celebrity, delving into how the diva persona intersects with society, provoking change and advocating for social good, including international civil rights and the fight for gender equality.

Not just a showcase of fame and success, DIVA serves as a tribute to the remarkable transformative ability of these women, demonstrating their unparalleled capacity to inspire and navigate the complex interplay of internal and external forces that contribute to the creation, definition, and awe of a diva.

DIVA Exhibition: Sequinned Power Unveiled
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Lizzo is seen in Midtown on September 25, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Gotham/GC Images)

The Evolution of a Term and an Identity

The exhibition deeply delves into the evolution of the term ‘diva’, originally Italian for ‘goddess’. It provides an in-depth look at how the meaning of this word has been subverted, adopted, and reclaimed over time, becoming an empowering label for performers and their admirers alike.

Over 60 captivating looks will be exhibited, many of which are rare or displayed for the first time, including stage ensembles from 1952, Marilyn Monroe’s fringed black dress from ‘Some Like it Hot’, iconic Bob Mackie-designed costumes worn by Tina Turner, P!nk and Cher, and Janelle Monae’s striking ‘vulva pants’ from the music video ‘Pynk’. The exhibition extends beyond costumes, featuring diva memorabilia such as posters, song sheets, handwritten lyric sheets, and personal items owned by these influential women.

Act One: Origin and Evolution

The exhibition unfolds in two compelling acts. ‘Act One’ provides a historical overview, exploring how the first opera divas like Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind leveraged their talent to gain wealth and recognition during an era when most women were denied education and careers. This section also discusses how early actors such as Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt, and Marie Lloyd spearheaded the first wave of feminism, establishing a foundation upon which the mighty women of the 20th century, such as Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Vivien Leigh, Mae West, and Marilyn Monroe, could build.

Highlighting rare Parisian couture, jewellery, ballet ensembles, and iconic Hollywood costumes, ‘Act One’ gives the nod to the powerful influence of these early divas. It ends with a tribute to the timeless opera diva, featuring costumes worn by Maria Callas, Joyce DiDonato, and Jessye Norman in their landmark performances.

DIVA Exhibition: Sequinned Power Unveiled
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Lizzo is seen in Midtown on September 25, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Gotham/GC Images)

Act Two: Redefinition and Reclamation

‘Act Two’ catapults us into the present, celebrating the modern diva shattering norms, pushing boundaries, and taking control of their narrative. This section investigates how today’s performers navigate male-dominated industries and expand their brands into the business world. It also explores how contemporary artists such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald bravely challenged societal norms, despite facing backlash and danger.

This act examines the groundbreaking, boundary-pushing divas of recent times, like Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Prince, and Elton John, highlighting how they have broken free from traditional representations, using costume and performance to express their identities and relationships with sexuality, gender, and the body. The exploration continues, highlighting how trailblazers like Bjork are unafraid to transform and reinvent themselves continually. In addition, Siouxsie Sioux and Missy Elliott have pushed the diva identity into new musical genres.

In this era of the modern diva, the lines between public and private life are blurred. DIVA examines this intersection, showing these performers’ challenges in balancing celebrity, personal life, and the persistent media eye. The exhibition concludes with a tribute to legendary divas like Cher and Tina Turner, who, collaborating with visionary fashion designer Bob Mackie, have constructed their full-glam, high-camp stage personas, inspiring a new generation of drag divas, including Ru Paul.

DIVA Exhibition: Sequinned Power Unveiled
Billy Holiday at her only ever London appearance at the Albert Hall. Jack Parnell band backing her by Harry Hammond English 1954

A Homage to Divas

In the words of Kate Bailey, curator of DIVA, “The V&A, with its world-class collections of art design and performance, is the perfect stage to celebrate the multifaceted Diva. Today the word diva holds a myriad of meanings. At the heart of this exhibition is a story of iconic performers who, with creativity, courage and ambition, have challenged the status quo and used their voice and art to redefine and reclaim the diva.”

Dame Shirley Bassey added, “I’m delighted that the V&A will display my Glastonbury look in DIVA, complete with diamanté Wellington boots! To me, ‘diva’ is all about the power of the voice and the ability to entertain, to succeed against odds, to fight, and breakthrough barrier after barrier: to have your voice heard.”

The DIVA exhibition promises to be a transformative experience, a homage to the enduring power, creativity, and resilience of the world’s most iconic divas. It is not just an exhibition – it is an exploration of the diva persona’s history, evolution, and future, a testament to the transformative power of performance and the courage to use one’s voice to challenge norms and shape society.

The event has been brought to life by Lead Curator Kate Bailey and Project Curator Veronica Castro. To immortalise the tribute to these powerhouses, a new V&A publication, DIVA, edited by Kate Bailey, will be available for purchase, a keepsake worth treasuring.

The exhibition DIVA runs from 24 June 2023 – 7 April 2024.   Adult tickets £20, student and under-26 tickets £13. Visit the V&A website.

Main image: Mark Sullivan, Contour by Getty Images

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