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.
The second act of the DIVA exhibition, held at the V&A, explores contemporary interpretations of what it means to be a Diva in the modern notion of a performing artist and a master of fashion creativity, continuing to explore themes of subversion and non-conformity as discussed in this piece’s sister article exploring Act 1. As visitors take each step to the second floor, they are invited to a new celebration of the Diva, with a particular focus on pop-culture icons defining female and LGBTQI+ emancipation in the second half of the 20th century and today.
In Act 2, where Scenes once structured the movement between pieces, there is a greater sense of fluidity and viewing is instead broken up by interjecting performances by the Divas, including Shirley Bassey’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and Bette Midler’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’, which were innovatively projected onto the ceiling’s alcoves. As most of the exhibition is spent as an individual endeavour, each visitor having their own pair of headphones, it makes for a nice contrast as a shared experience.
In my opinion, deeply underappreciated for her fashion ingenuity, act 2 opens with a grand display of the work of Rihanna. The first two pieces were her Met Gala looks from 2018 and 2021: the first, a Catholicism-inspired pearl and jewel-encrusted robe and papal mitre, designed by John Galliano offered a thought-provoking reimagination of the Pope and male figures of authority; the second, a puffed Balenciaga overcoat and matching hat, custom designed by Demna Gvasalia, was inspired by the eclectic mixing of haute couture and streetwear, another stylistic genre she has mastered. The next pieces included her Diana Ross-inspired nude gown with over 200,000 Swarovski crystals, which has been widely referenced throughout pop culture (even Family Guy!) and was another look referencing men’s fashion with the accompanying durag, her Braille crown from her ANTI Album cover and her Alaia red lace bodysuit from the May 2022 Vogue cover, celebrating her changing body through fabrics not commonly associated with pregnancy.
Around the corner, we saw more iconic works from the diverse careers of Janet Jackson, Lata Mangeshkar, Priyanka Chopra, Sade, the EGOT Barbra Streisand and Adele. Amongst these was a powerful acknowledgement of Beyonce’s effort to reclaim the word Diva, particularly in her ‘I Am…Sasha Fierce’ album and her track ‘Diva’ opening with the repeating lyrics “Diva is a female version of a hustla”, embodying the spirit of the whole Act.
The following pieces especially highlighted the intersection of fashion and politically charged explorations in gender and sexuality, a key pillar defining the work of many celebrated Divas. Underestimated throughout her career as a ‘dumb blonde’ and a key cultural ambassador for both women and the working-class American South, Dolly Parton’s image remained unshaken by expectations projected onto her as she accentuated her hyper-femininity in her clothing. A pioneer in her own right, she long foreshadowed contemporary trends of ‘Bimboism,’ defying stereotypes surrounding women’s intelligence and their corresponding image under modern denominations of feminism; here it is highlighted with her 1978 doll collection featuring a variety of her greatest looks. Prince, now considered a modern idol of androgyneity, was the first male Diva featured. His “Love Symbol”, shown here in his custom lavender boots designed by Andre Rostomyan, was a stylised reference to the male and female gender signs, religious iconography, and musical notation, epitomising his boundary-defying experimentation in fashion throughout the 80s and 90s. Then followed recent pieces from Lil Nas X and Doja Cat. Doja Cat has been particularly noted for her red-carpet garments which “actively defy” the male gaze, typically combined with a sense of humour, here seen in her haute couture power suit designed by Victor&Rolf for the Daily Front Row Fashion Media Awards. Readers may recall her 2023 Met Gala appearance as Karl Lagerfeld’s cat Choupette, or her all-red sequin look, using 30,000 Swarovski crystals for the 2023 fall-winter Paris fashion week. Still remaining a sex symbol of modern popular culture, her use of clothing emphasizes her control over her sexual autonomy and inspires a conversation of female sexual agency, often discarded within the music industry. Amidst references to Freddie Mercury, Pink and the late Sophie, the succeeding pieces continued the conversation of autonomy and liberation within female and queer sexuality, notably Grace Jones’ sculpted emerald fibreglass bustier designed by Issey Miyake, characteristic of her refusal to subdue her sexuality to conform accordingly to the male gaze, and Janelle Monae’s ‘Vulva pants’, designed by Duran Lantink, which, really, speak for themselves.
No one defines ‘Diva’ more than Lady Gaga. I would have preferred to see more of Gaga’s looks within the exhibit due to her hugely significant impact on defining the diva in recent history and the fascinating ways she expanded her creativity through fashion. However, it was nice to see the piece chosen within the exhibit. A modern patron for the avant-garde, with rebellion and reinvention being some of her core principles stylistically, Gaga is known for her red carpet looks that continue the lineage of divas pushing the boundaries of social conformity, such as the famed ‘Meat Dress’. The exhibit, instead, showed a different side of Gaga: a large glass case contained the two-piece, periwinkle gown, custom designed by Valentino, featuring an enormous 10-foot train and grand puffed sleeves worn at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards. Offering an alternate side to her experimentation, the choice of this piece really highlighted the impressive creative range and multi-faceted personality found within Gaga’s artistic career.
Continuing in the realm of performing artists, a stunning display of pieces from the careers of a myriad of artists succeeded. From Miriam Makeba to Shirley Bassey, Joan Beaz, Missey Elliot and Britney Spears, visitors were able to view an immeasurably diverse collection of outfits that have embellished the careers of many globally renowned musicians and adorned some of the world’s most internationally renowned stages. Tina Turner crowned the ‘Queen of Rock'n'roll’, wore some of the most striking stage looks in performance history, often used to define her personal and professional independence, such as her silver silk and sequin dress from her solo performance debut in 1975. The elaborate display offered by the exhibit further illustrated her free-spirited nature with the iconic ‘Flame Dress’, designed by Bob Mackie in 1978. Liza Minnelli had a similarly dramatic impact on looks for the stage, particularly her distinctive costume for her character in the 1972 version of Cabaret, designed by Charlotte Flemming which offered a subversive take on 1930s burlesque by interweaving elements of menswear, such as the waistcoat inspired top and bowler hat. Consequently, the combination of lingerie and menswear has since inspired the wardrobes of many more divas across the last 50 years. Motivated by discussions of what is conventionally gendered clothing and body image, Billie Eilish is a more recent artist shown in the exhibit who continues the thread of androgeneity and non-conformity in the looks of a diva. Known for her playfulness as an artist, one of her many famed baggy t-shirt and shorts outfits, this one from her Glastonbury 2019 performance, designed by Stella McCartney, was displayed in the exhibit here. Initially using her sense of style to avoid scrutiny of her body, debuting as an artist at the age of just 14, Eilish has since used fashion and silhouettes to confront and critique the media over their obsession with body image, most notably addressing this in her piece ‘Not My Responsibility’.
The exhibition featured yet more artists who have used fashion to extend their creativity and envelop their personal identity, markedly in the works of Bjork and Cher. A grand glass display case held, first, Bjork’s Volubein shoes from the ‘Fossora’ album cover: an eccentric piece uniquely tied to her Icelandic roots in which the top is modelled off a native fern, the soles are carved from Icelandic birch and each shoe contains basalt dotted with white CO2 deposits collected from the Carbfix environmental project of 2022. The second piece was her black and gold floral haute couture gown designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino from her performance in November 2021 in Reykjavik. Both pieces highlight Bjork’s unabashed creativity through her fantastically intrinsic world-building within each album cycle of her musical career, conveying the holistic nature of her talent as an artist. Around the corner, a central island is rightfully dedicated to the works of Cher. The exhibit successfully presented a range of Cher’s clothing, illustrating her talent for reinvention throughout her longstanding career since the 1960s; whilst her talent speaks for itself, I would particularly like to spotlight one of my favourite pieces exhibited here: her red feather dress and headpiece worn for the MGM Grand opening in Las Vegas in 1978, designed by Bob Mackie, accentuating one of the most extravagant haute couture silhouettes. Another was her ‘naked dress’ from 1987. Worn to promote her perfume launch, also designed by Bob Mackie, the dress characterises both the craftmanship she inspires into her looks and the undeniable sensuality that she has cleverly experimented with throughout her career.
After approximately 2 hours spent viewing the entire exhibit, the last piece visitors see before the descent back to the real world is Elton John’s 50th birthday costume: an ostentatious look inspired by the Court of Versailles and King Louis XIV, designed by Sandy Powell in 1997. On par with the flamboyance seen throughout, it successfully and respectfully nods to the innovation, experimentation and subversion of all the Divas and their groundbreaking work.
A perfect end to what was a spectacular exhibit and a definite must for all those interested in fashion, music, film, activism as well as queer and female liberation. In short, Act 2 was a spectacular encapsulation and documentation of the modern history of our most notable artistic, musical and fashion icons as they permeate pop culture. Provocative and endlessly moving, it will not fail to impress.
DIVA, Exhibition is now at the V&A Museum until Sunday, 7 April 2024
Tickets for £20.00
Edited by Megan, Fashion Editor