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The V&A’s DIVA: A Star-Studded Show Not To Be Missed (Act I)

Celebrating “the power and creativity of iconic performers,” the V&A has created a masterful exhibition to explore the range of re-definitions of ‘Diva’ across the last 200 years, displaying the exemplary work of almost 100 divas in fashion, film, music, and political activism.

The exhibit is on two floors, circular, and can be found in Room 40, where the permanent fashion collection is held. Upon arrival you are offered an audio set; this guides viewers through the exhibition, not through a spoken track, but provides the music and/or screen audio for whichever part of the exhibition the listeners is located within. The tour is divided into two floors with the ground floor labelled as ‘Act 1’ and the first floor labelled as ‘Act 2’. These Acts are then further divided into Scenes, which, for the most part, work chronologically in Act 1.

Act 1 – Scene 1:

The opening scene starts, naturally, at the origins of ‘Diva.’ Bellini’s Opera Norma (1831), a work considered to have had a significant impact on introducing the Diva, can be heard over the audio track, accompanying large glass displays of fantastically preserved costumes, portraits, and what would now be considered merchandise of two of the greatest opera singers of the era: Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind. Patti’s dress in the glass case was worn in an unidentified production and designed by Morin-Blossier, a leading Parisian fashion house that supplied gowns to the royalty of Europe in the 1880s. With its ornate beaded decoration, glass diamante, and silk satin fabric, the piece clearly alludes to the Diva’s high societal status, both in design and craft. Above reads a quote from Theophile Gautier, “Whenever she sings on the throne of gold, she assumes her star in the diadem of the diva”, who is thought to have been the first to describe what a Diva is, though, in a foreshadowing sense, his writing outlines a male perspective when celebrating female performers where they were still considered objects for male consumption and ‘her’ talents were not ‘her’ own. Whilst positive as a celebration of women, showing enthusiasm for skilled female performers and artists, one could argue that even here the eventual derogatory use of ‘Diva’ appears inevitable. Beside the glass display are further portraits of early talented female opera singers adorned with the title of Diva: Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, and Nellie Melba.

Photo by Holly Anderson

The second section of the exhibit focused on the works of women on the stage as performers but also referenced some of their work in activism for issues of both class and gender. Another glass case showed the costumes of the diverse roles played by British actor Ellen Terry and Italian actor Eleanora Duse. The fantastically preserved, stamped velvet dress worn for Terry’s ‘Beatrice’ in the 1891 production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is decadent in its embellishment and detail with metal thread, pearls, and a floral motif. The use of this piece pays a respectful nod to her dedication to the perfection of Shakespeare’s works. The off-white lawn gown worn by Eleanora Duse for recital performances features embroidered flower and foliage motifs, reflecting the naturalistic acting style she was known for. The dress is characteristic of her limited use of elaborate make-up and costume as she favoured emotionally honest expression. Visitors can then see portraits and posters of Vesta Tilley, Marie Lloyd, and Edith Craig. Lloyd was particularly noted for her authentic voice and comedic persona, stretching the perception of a Diva, but also for her voicing of misogyny and classicism within the entertainment industry which can clearly be seen in her monologue ‘You Can’t Stop a Girl from Thinking!’ A second glass case displayed the costumes of Ingrid Bergman and Sarah Bernhardt, two-stage actors widely acknowledged for their experimentation with gender boundaries and forward-thinking feminist attitudes. Bernhardt successfully performed roles with a broad range of emotions for both male and female characters, including Duc de Reichstadt from L’Aiglon, Pelleas from Pelleas et Melisande, and Cleopatra. Amongst the costumes, a poster of Bernhardt’s portrayal of Jeanne d’Arc shows her wearing a full suit of armour, much unlike the hypersexualized female-warrior costumes much more modern audiences are used to, posing an interesting discussion in the development of female character design over the past century.

Scene 3: Dancers and Showgirls

Photo by Holly Anderson

As the 20th century rolled in and the suffragette movement was gaining speed, Diva became synonymous with the freedom and creativity of expressive movement and dance. In scene 3, accompanying descriptions of three pivotal dancers, Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Tamara Karsavina, are some of their most famous costume pieces, including a flowy white dress and a corset with front opening mechanism, symbolic of the shift to women’s independence. Karzavina’s asymmetrical costume for her portrayal of Salome is positioned next to a newspaper article where it had been reimagined as a bathing suit, reinforcing the influence and position of the Diva in society, particularly within the world of fashion. Around the corner, the costumes of Josephine Baker and Bette Midler can be found as a display of the agency of the showgirl’. Baker, a civil rights activist crucial in the fight for racial and gender equality, coupled fashion with provoking choreography such as her famed ‘Banana skirt’ to weaponize the Western fascination with ‘exotic’ women. This allowed Baker to create her own platform and voice her political views, despite the discrimination she faced in a world of misogynoir.

Scene 4: Silent Goddesses of film

Photo by Holly Anderson

Though silent actresses of the screen were often viewed as and, arguably reduced to caricatured, hypersexual archetypes of femininity, this did not limit the power of the diva to permeate culture and society at large. Lyda Borelli’s languid sensuality on screen generated the Italian craze ‘Borellismo’ or ‘Borelleggiare’ denoting the desperation of women at the time to imitate the fashion, movement, and poses of Borelli and her characters. Similarly, Theda Bara, considered the earliest sex symbol and one of the most iconic depictions of Cleopatra, stunned the world with her risqué use of fashion in film. Her long bra, displayed in the exhibition, with a grey iridescent front sash and tiered strings of pearls, was one of her many costumes that were famously prohibited for breaking the Hays Code, a notorious set of industry guidelines retrospectively thought to influence much of Hollywood’s renowned sexist attitudes. Off-screen, women across the film industry were making great strives for gender equality. Clara Bow, the founder of the ‘It Girl’, fought for financial freedom with her 1938 Paramount Salary contract to $2,837 (approximately $60,000 today) per week for her “zeal and enthusiasm in the service of the company”. Her self-assured, liberated nature was strongly reflected in her clothing, as seen in the exhibition with her only known surviving dress: a maroon crushed velvet dress with beaded embellishment from the 1929 film ‘The Will Party.’ The use of a drop waist and the lack of a restrictive corset emulated the growing independence that Bow inspired. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Mary Pickford were also acknowledged here for their exemplary portrayals of women, particularly queer women, to encourage a greater diversity of female characters on screen, as well as Lois Weber, the first American woman to establish her own film studio in 1917.

Scene 5: Hollywood Divas

Photo by Holly Anderson

Hollywood’s Golden Age saw a retraction in the efforts towards gender equality, leading to an increasing underrepresentation of women within the film industry and consequently a negative portrayal of female actors, directors, and producers, despite their supernova stardom. Diva, accordingly, became a derogatory term to describe women who were ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’, typically due to their rebuttal of the exploitation, discrimination, and professional limitations imposed upon them. One of the most notable of these was Bette Davis, who, like Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, suffered greatly because of ageist attitudes, forcing actresses into derogatory portrayals of older women, or forcing them out of the industry altogether. Davis fought strongly against this and other constraints throughout her career, so much so that in 1936 she was told she had no right “fighting like a man,” over her contract. Davis was honoured as a Diva for her two Academy Awards and her disruption of Hollywood with a display of her ‘All About Eve’ poster and the brown silk sable-trimmed dress with square neckline, worn by her character Margo Channing. Further stunning costumes of revolutionary divas followed, including the double Academy Award-winning Vivien Leigh’s red Christian Dior gown for the 1958 production of ‘Duel of Angels’ – noted as the first British actress to win Best Actress – and Elizabeth Taylor’s three-piece costume for ‘Cleopatra’ (1963), including a long blue silk dress, a gold leaf layered leather vest and sequin embroidered cape adorned with ‘Egyptian-style’ iconography for which she won a $1million fee, becoming the highest earning performer in Hollywood history.

Photo by Holly Anderson

A screen then displayed short clips from the cinematographic works of more of Hollywood’s greatest; including Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away” from ‘A Star Is Born,’ Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, and Ida Lupino. A clip from ‘I’m No Angel,’ (1933) one of her only films to narrowly escape censorship under the Hays Code, showed the rebellious, sexually liberated Mae West alongside a screen print of her iconic quote “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better”, defining her image of female sexual autonomy and denial of social conformity. Her silk chiffon dress adorned with a silk train and glass diamante sequin embellishments, designed by Travis Banton, was displayed here too. Marilyn Monroe was the last Hollywood Diva shown, honoured with a clip of her performance ‘Running Wild’ from ‘Some Like It Hot,’ (1959) and her black, flapper-style, fringed hem dress, designed by Orry-Kelly for her character Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk. Perhaps the most famous and heartbreaking example of Hollywood exploitation, Monroe epitomised the Hollywood diva, using her talent and fame for good, particularly in the face of racial tension and prejudice, despite her constant scrutiny and invasion of her private life. I found this scene to be the most moving, highlighting the struggle of women in the entertainment industry with a much greater intensity than I had seen before.

Scene 6: Opera Voices

The last scene of Act 1 cycles back to contemporary opera, returning to positivity in the redefinition of the Diva. With reinterpretations of classic roles and increasing inclusivity within our global society, a new wave of operatic divas since the 1960s has reshaped the landscape that is classical vocal music. Among these, the Diva exhibition highlighted Fairuz, whose global acclaim bestowed her the title of ‘The Soul of Lebanon’, Marian Anderson, who was invited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sing an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 in the face of a deeply segregated performance industry, and Leontyne Price, the first African American soprano to receive international acclaim and stardom, inspiring some of the next centuries greatest singers, including Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Photo by Holly Anderson

A glass display case opposite showed the costumes of Joan Sutherland and Jessye Norman. On the left sat Sutherland’s costume from her breakthrough performance Lucie di Lammermoor (1959): a glamorous, puff-sleeved, silver, and cream satin ballgown designed by Franco Zeffirelli. Sutherland’s place in the diva exhibition was almost unquestionable; widely regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time, she was known internationally as “La Stupenda,” particularly for her contribution to the revival of bel canto repertoire. Jessye Norman’s place was similarly unquestionable: throughout her heavily decorated career, including over 30 honorary doctorates and a street named after her, Norman, repeatedly defied the classical music industry’s expectations of black female singers, revolutionizing the performance space for all young black performers. Similarly, her impact offstage was undeniable, granting her the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal for her work in the fight against lupus, breast cancer, AIDS, and hunger (2000). The costume chosen to honour Norman was taken from her performance in Ariadine Auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House (1985): a grey chiffon turban decorated with diamante and a matching dress with a graduated grey crepe de Chine overlay, designed by Lore Haas.

A second glass case contained one of the most memorable pieces of operatic costume in recent history. Joyce DiDonato’s red gown, designed by Vivienne Westwood Couture (used in her show ‘Drama Queens’) boasted an architectural complexity in construction, with vast cascades of scarlet satin, and was one of the most beautiful dresses that I have ever seen. A Global Ambassador for World Voice and a tremendous activist, this dress was the only one appropriate to represent DiDonato’s magnificent career.

As arguably the most influential opera singer of the 20th century, no one could have been better suited than Maria Callas to end Act 1. The final display before the stairs contained two costumes from some of Callas’s best work. The first, a tunic-style white dress, with a light blue draped cloak and a golden belt, designed by Alan Barlow, was worn in her title role of Bellini’s opera ‘Norma’ 1952, cycling back to our introduction. The second, a floor-length dark red velvet gown with gold and jewelled trim alongside accompanying tiara and necklace, designed by Marcel Escoffier for her 1964 performance of Puccini’s ‘Tosca.’

It should also be noted that, just before the stairs ascend, there is a graph conveniently displaying the parallels between the redefinitions of Diva and the development of the waves of feminism - certainly an important read to help visitors grasp the socio-cultural context behind such an important title of women in the performance industry.

Act 1 provided an insightful and well-thought-out display of the historical development of ‘Diva’, a necessary and informative foundation for all viewers before it awaits its deconstruction and further reimagination in Act 2. The chronological passage, the metaphorical and physical cyclical nature of the exhibit and the array of performance styles explored provided a fascinatingly holistic and all-encompassing opening, generating much excitement for the proceeding second act.

As with most exhibits produced by the V&A, DIVA is a must-visit, being both entertaining and engaging, an evocative display of a concept so pivotal to the perception of women throughout history in the arts that I wish was part of their permanent collection.


DIVA, Exhibition is now at the V&A Museum until Sunday, 7 April 2024

Tickets for £20.00

Edited by Megan, Fashion Editor


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