Iconic legends celebrated in London exhibition

Spectacular costumes worn by Maria Callas, Cher, Elton John and Marilyn Monroe to go on display
Whitney Houston performing at Wembley Arena, London, UK 5 May 1988.

Tickets have just gone on sale for Diva, the first exhibition of its kind to celebrate the extraordinary power and creativity of iconic performers who have made their voices heard from the 19th century to today. 

The exhibition will showcase over 250 objects drawn from the V&A collection and loans from across the world, spanning fashion, photography, design, costumes, music, and live performance. Through theatrical staging and a sonic headset experience, Diva will celebrate the powerful and personal stories of creativity, ambition, and resilience of some of the best known divas, from opera goddesses and silent movie stars to sirens of the big screen and today’s global megastars.

 The exhibition also looks at how the performer has intersected with society and driven change through their platform and profile for social good and political change, including global civil rights and feminism. Diva will demonstrate the phenomenal ability of the diva to transform, inspire and embrace the external and internal forces that contribute to defining, shaping, and worshipping a diva. 

Delving into the origins of the term ‘diva’ – meaning goddess in Italian – the exhibition will explore how the meaning of the word has been subverted and embraced over time, and how the label has been reclaimed by performers, their fans and wider society.

Over 60 looks will go on display, many rare or on display for the first time, including: a stage ensemble worn by Maria Callas as Norma in the Covent Garden Opera Company production of Norma (1952); the fringed black dress worn by Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like it Hot (1959); the only known surviving dress worn by Clara Bow, rarely seen outside of the U.S; iconic costumes designed by fashion designer for the stars Bob Mackie, including looks worn by Tina Turner, P!nk and Cher; a Louis XIV inspired look, with towering powdered wig and train worn by Elton John for his 50th birthday celebration, designed by Sandy Powell; Shirley Bassey’s couture pink gown designed by Julien MacDonald including diamanté-studded wellington boots, worn on stage at Glastonbury (2007); and Janelle Monae’s ‘vulva pants’ designed by Duran Lantink for the music video Pynk (2018). 

Also on display will be examples of ephemera for the divadom including posters, song sheets and handwritten lyric sheets as well as personal objects and accessories owned by divas. Diva also includes examples of diva branding, highlighting the entrepreneurial and enterprising spirit of these divas, as well key photographic works by photographers including Sheila Rock, David Corio and Nick Knight. Finally, a video wall will celebrate the art of drag and its relationship to the diva. 

Kate Bailey, curator of Diva, said: “The V&A with its world class collections of art design and performance and its mission to inspire creativity in all its forms 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 their art to redefine and reclaim the diva.” 

Diva runs from June 24 to April 7 2024. at the Victoria & Albert, London. For other Pink magazine features about international exhibitions, check out this Chanel showcase and this exhibition about royal fashion.

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