Filled with plenty of personality, this neatly displayed exhibition explores the changing role of the diva in society and how the word itself has seemingly changed meaning over the years.

(c)Victoria & Albert Museum

So many strong and influential personalities feature in this stunning and effective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, highlighting the way in which the word ‘diva’ has been used in both and a negative light. Taking us from the original stage divas and opera stars who helped to originate the term, to contemporary stars including Tina Turner, Cher and Shirley Bassey for example have made the term something to aspire to as opposed to the way in which it gained a reputation (particularly in the 1930’s onwards in Hollywood) for a way to destroy a career or to.

But this is not simply a chance to admire so many costumes worn by these personalities (for me personally it was a real thrill to see Marilyn Monroe’s black dress from Some Like it Hot for example) – but also get a glimpse into their lives and how they used their fame and power to influence society and to highlight important issues in society. This is something that becomes particularly clear as the exhibition goes round on the first floor, as we learn about the ways in which stars were able to stand against having to relinquish power, with some doing this more successfully than others. The image of Marilyn Monroe taken by Arnold Newman is particularly haunting to look at, while the way in which Vivian Leigh’s mental health problems were used against is equally heartbreaking to witness.

However, for every story like Monroe and Leigh (and even with them there is an element of strength of what they had to overcome that makes them so admired), there are plenty of celebratory stories to be found as well. The way in which Katherine Hepburn was known for her independent style and determination to not be held back in the face of trouble is admirable or how the way in which Carole Lombard in 1938 became the first artist to negotiate a share of box office profits into her deal – shows how forward thinking these personalities are and can be.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum

The first floor of the exhibition is a lesson in history about the term of the diva, taking us through from the style of Opera singers from the 1830’s and the struggles that women had in terms of even trying to get a career on the stage. A gorgeous rich outfit worn by Maria Callas is a real highlight on this floor, while it was also a thrill to see one Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes from the iconic film Cleopatra – the outfits or costumes each reflecting the personality and character they portrayed.

While there might be some discrepancy on occasion in terms of chronologically (not sure why a headpiece worn by Beyonce was placed next to Elizabeth Taylor’s costume from Cleopatra for example) and it feels as though too many personalities and how they give definition to the word diva is a little bit overwhelming are focused on. However, it is an exhibition that makes you question – what does the word diva mean to you? With fewer personalities featured (particularly on the top floor), there could have been even more depth.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum

But oh my, the second floor of the exhibition is a real dazzling spectacular, with outfits on display including the firefly dress worn by Tina Turner, Sir Elton John’s 50th birthday party outfit – the Recency, Louis XIV-inspired one , a beautiful shimmery dress worn by Whitney Houston for example show how the word diva has expanded and is now something to be celebrated and in fact be shouted out about loud and proud. But here as well, with focus on people such as Ella Fitzgerald also still give focus on how  empowerment and oppression helped made them divas as well as the adoration of their fans allowed them to highlight important issues.

This exhibition perfectly blends the history of the diva with a more contemporary outlook that makes for an engaging experience – particularly with music and soundtracks in your ears (through high quality headphones) that keeps you immersed throughout. A fantastic experience.

By Emma Clarendon

Diva is on display at the V&A until the 7th April 2024.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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