Learning about divas of the past will make you giddy and grateful


It’s giving fashion, it’s giving feminism, it’s giving Cher. I didn’t need any persuading to buy the ticket, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

Complete with Rihanna’s 2018 MET gala outfit, Tina Turner’s flame dress and Grace Jones’ torso corset, curator Kate Bailey absolutely gives us what we came for. More importantly and more surprisingly, though, it reminds us where we came from

Tina Turner wearing the Flame dress designed by Bob Mackie (1980). Photo by Gai Terrell, Redferns. Getty Images

The word ‘diva’ comes from the Latin for ‘goddess’ and was first put to use to describe “divinely talented” 19th-century soprano singers. The first half of the exhibition, titled ‘Creation’, introduces us to leading ladies in opera, dance and early Hollywood. Looking at them in 2023, it’s stereotypically feminine as it comes: absurdly cinched corsets shrouded in dark boudoir lighting. But the plaques beside them show that early divas were much more than women who could hit high notes. 

Adelina Patti was the first performer to be described as a diva in print because of her intoxicating charisma as much as her voice. Marian Anderson, after being barred from performing at a segregated venue despite her towering reputation, sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and added fuel to the fire of the Civil Rights movement. Isadora Duncan (my favourite diva on this floor) was a beautiful dancer, but also a choreographic innovator who had three children outside wedlock, and died when her scarf got tangled in the wheel of a car she was driving. 

Portrait of Adelina Patti by Franz Winterhalter ca. 1865-70. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Harewood House Trust

The word diva feels so ubiquitous and vibes-based (and hopefully, makes you think of this magazine) – it’s hard to define it exactly. But this first section of the exhibition does a great job of piecing it together from its first use. It has to do with talent, magnetic personality, striking fashion and radical gender politics. It’s also to do with darkness: Bailey also shows us that it was inherently dangerous to be an early diva. Some of these women were alcoholics, others died young, and all of them were hounded by the press and demonised for being women with opinions.

It’s because of this struggle and tragedy that walking upstairs to the second half, ‘Reclamation’, literally feels like a staircase to heaven. All the diva energy, having so far flowed through dark basement corridors, gets released into a high-ceilinged room and allowed to soar. Lots of the mannequins are freed from glass cases and placed on tall plinths with their arms joyfully outstretched. It feels like walking through a very sparkly mountain range. It’s a lovely and very clever way of reminding us of the progress the world has made towards women’s rights and acceptance of LGBTQIA people.

Installation images of DIVA at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

You hear the stars as well as see them, through a pair of headphones presented to you at the entrance. The music is a great way of tracking ‘diva’ from opera to Beyoncé: it follows you through the exhibition, automatically playing songs by the performer you are standing close to. If you’re not a fan of people skipping songs mid-way through, you might not like this, but I loved it. Wondering where to turn next, you hear Nina Simone’s voice and realise she’s behind you. 

My personal highlight was Janelle Monae’s ‘vulva pants’, one of the moments where paying for a £20 exhibition ticket felt well and truly worth it. The labia-shaped trousers, made famous in the music video for Monae’s song ‘Pynk’, have always been iconic, but we’re used to pop music videos being hallucinogenic sex-fests by now. Seeing the vulva pants towering over you in a museum was a whole different experience: a subversive, majestic jumpscare.

Installation images of DIVA at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

Weirdly, this part of the exhibition feels less certain about what a diva is, and there are surprising inclusions, like Billie Eilish. But this is definitely not a bad thing – it feels generous rather than careless. There’s no gatekeeping, and Bailey is careful not to tell you what to think. 

The whole experience made me want to dance and also made me want to dress more daringly. Go with your friends on a Friday night.

Diva is at the V&A, London, until 7 April 2024. 

DIVA magazine celebrates 29 years in print in 2023. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 

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