“DIVA” at the V&A: A Celebration of Iconic Performers, Past and Present

Cher, Elton John and Diana Ross at Rock Awards Santa Monica Civic Auditorium 1975; Various Locations; Mark Sullivan 70’s Rock Archive (Photo by Mark Sullivan/Contour by Getty Images)

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is set to unveil its newest exhibit, “DIVA,” a majestic homage to the indomitable spirit of iconic performers, from the silvery notes of Adelina Patti to the bold ensembles of Rihanna. Curated with an exquisite eye for detail and a grand narrative arc, the exhibit promises to transport visitors through time and space, as it celebrates the fearless women who, armed with their incredible talent and unwavering determination, have left an indelible mark on the cultural tapestry of our world.

The realms of fashion, music, and art once again harmoniously intersect as the much-awaited DIVA exhibition opens its doors at the V&A. The exhibition pays tribute to the divas who have captured the world’s imagination and shaped popular culture throughout history. From 19th-century operatic sensations to today’s global icons, DIVA charts the evocative journey of these trailblazing women.

Rihanna: The Evolution of a Global Phenomenon

Leading the parade of stars is the multi-dimensional global sensation, Rihanna. Known for her bold fashion choices, Rihanna’s ensemble choices are more than just garments; they narrate the story of an artist unafraid to reinvent herself while firmly holding onto her roots. The exhibition showcases five seminal looks, marking Rihanna’s growth from a pop sensation to a global icon. Highlights include the 2018 Met Gala’s high-fashion Papal look, emblematic of her audacity, and the couture black gown from 2021, a testament to her timelessness.

However, it’s not just about high-profile events. DIVA also acknowledges Rihanna’s personal milestones. The inclusion of her 2023 Oscars Alaïa ensemble gracefully highlighting her pregnancy symbolizes the merging of her personal and public life. Beyond fashion, the exhibition extends to her musical journey, evident in the crown from her ANTI album cover.

Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Accepting the Fashion Icon Award from Anna Wintour at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards in New York, 2014. Photo David X

As Kate Bailey, the curator of DIVA, rightly says, Rihanna is more than a musical artist. She’s a culture-maker, activist, and entrepreneur. Rihanna’s trajectory showcases the evolution of the term ‘Diva’ – from mere performers to influential trendsetters.

Echoes of Diva Moments Past: A Timeless Fashion Exhibit

From silent film stars to today’s chart-topping sensations, the diva has been an enduring icon, a symbol of unmatched talent, charisma, and style. The ‘Echoes of Diva Moments Past’ exhibit pays homage to these legendary figures and their iconic moments, stitching together a tapestry of talent and fashion that spans over a century.

Rihanna: A name that needs no introduction. Recognized universally as a symbol of contemporary music and fashion, she represents the present-day diva. Her fashion choices have often made headlines, and this exhibit proudly features some of her most striking ensembles.

But Rihanna’s stardom is enriched by the legends who came before her. There’s a nostalgic aura surrounding Whitney Houston‘s black and gold dress. For many, it isn’t just a dress. It is a moment frozen in time – a moment when she dominated the Grammy stage for her performance in ‘The Bodyguard’. The 90s might feel like a different era, but with this dress, one can almost hear the first few notes of ‘I Will Always Love You’, echoing through the corridors of time.

Whitney Houston performing at Wembley Arena, London 5 May 1988. Photograph © David Corio

Modern sensations like Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X add a different flavor to the mix. Eilish’s Glastonbury ensemble is a testament to her rule-breaking style and distinct musical identity. It stands as a representation of the avant-garde, a fusion of streetwear and luxury. Lil Nas X’s lilac Versace suit from the MTV VMAs, on the other hand, is audacious, a perfect representation of an artist who consistently defies genre and expectation. It’s more than fashion; it’s a statement of bold individuality.

The beauty of the ‘Echoes of Diva Moments Past’ exhibit lies in its breadth. With 60 ensembles and 250 other artifacts, visitors are taken on a journey. From the glam of silent movie sirens, the sultry vibe of the jazz era, the rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, to today’s diverse pop culture sensations, the exhibit is a vibrant blend of history, music, and fashion.

As attendees move from one piece to the next, they’re not just admiring fabric and design; they’re experiencing moments, memories, and melodies. Each artifact, each ensemble, is a story waiting to be told, a song waiting to be sung. So, step in and let the divas of the past and present serenade you with their timeless tales.

Experience Beyond Vision: A Symphony for the Senses

In the world of art and exhibits, sight has often taken center stage, engaging visitors with an array of colors, designs, and visual stories. But the DIVA experience pushes the boundaries of the conventional, ushering in an era where art and sound coalesce to offer an engagement that goes beyond the eyes.

Enter the sonic headset by Tonwelt. This cutting-edge piece of technology isn’t just an accessory; it’s a conduit to another realm. Designed with precision, it encapsulates visitors in a cocoon of sound, filtering distractions and ensuring they are deeply connected to the narrative the exhibit unfolds.

The maestro behind the aural experience is none other than Gareth Fry, a name synonymous with avant-garde sound design. He curates an auditory tapestry that aligns perfectly with the visual elements on display. But more than that, he crafts moments of magic, where visitors feel as if they’ve stepped into a timeless realm, a space where past and present merge in harmonious symphony.

Imagine standing before a vintage photograph or an iconic dress, and as you absorb the visual details, your ears are greeted with the hauntingly beautiful voice of Maria Callas, the opera sensation. Her powerful notes, her emotive arias, transport you back in time, placing you right in the midst of a packed opera house, hanging onto every note, every emotion.

And just as you’re floating in this classical wonder, you’re gently transitioned into the world of pop. The unmistakable voice of Madonna fills your ears, capturing the essence of an era defined by boldness and reinvention. The rhythm, the pulse, it’s not just a song; it’s a revolution. And before the reverie ends, you’re catapulted into the world of Beyoncé – a diva who defines contemporary music, activism, and fashion.

But the DIVA experience is more than just an auditory journey through time. It’s an exploration of emotion. With each diva’s voice, visitors are invited to experience the highs and lows, the challenges and triumphs, the love and heartbreak that these legends lived through.

In essence, the DIVA experience is an invitation. An invitation to journey beyond the realm of vision and delve deep into the symphony of sounds, to let the voices of legendary divas resonate in one’s soul, and to experience history not as a distant past but as a living, breathing entity. Welcome to a world where sight and sound merge, where divas past and present beckon, and where every note is a story waiting to be felt.

The Legacy of the Diva: Beyond the Limelight

When one hears the term ‘Diva’, a flurry of images come to mind: dramatic stage entrances, dazzling ensembles, unparalleled vocal prowess, and, at times, larger-than-life personas. However, the legacy of the diva extends far beyond the footlights and flashbulbs. It delves into realms of social activism, political change, and redefining cultural norms. This is the legacy that the DIVA exhibition seeks to illuminate.

The etymology of ‘Diva’ is rooted in the Latin word for ‘goddess’, and indeed, many of these women were revered as deities of the stage and screen. But what made them truly god-like, in many instances, wasn’t just their artistry, but their courage to challenge the status quo.

Take Billie Holiday, for example. In a time when America was rife with racial tension, she sang “Strange Fruit,” a poignant and haunting ballad about lynching. It wasn’t just a song, it was a protest, a battle cry, a painful reminder of the inhumanities Black Americans faced. Similarly, the indomitable Aretha Franklin didn’t just ask for ‘Respect’ in her songs; she demanded it in real life, championing civil rights and women’s empowerment.

While the exhibition is awash with glittering gowns and show-stopping performances, it’s these stories of bravery and activism that truly define the essence of a diva. Marilyn Monroe, often remembered for her glamorous image, battled against the objectification of women in the industry. The very fact that she remains an icon today speaks to her lasting impact, not just as an actress but as a pioneering woman of her time.

And as we travel through the corridors of the exhibition, we encounter the ethereal voice of Maria Callas, who redefined opera for the modern age. Her performances were a testament to passion and dedication, and her life off the stage was filled with tales of resilience in the face of personal and professional challenges.

No exploration of divadom would be complete without touching upon the sheer electric energy of Tina Turner or the genre-defying versatility of CHER. Their iconic outfits and performances displayed in the exhibition serve as symbols of their evolution, not just as artists but as women who constantly broke boundaries.

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 01: Photo of Tina TURNER; performing live onstage c.1979, solo era (Photo by Gai Terrell/Redferns)

In essence, the DIVA exhibition isn’t just a tribute to showbiz and stardom. It’s a homage to the strength, resilience, and revolutionary spirit of women who, despite facing immense challenges, carved their names in history. These divas went beyond the limelight, leaving behind legacies that continue to inspire, challenge, and transform the world around us. They remind us that being a diva isn’t just about the spotlight; it’s about shining a light on issues and making the world a better place.

A Tribute to Timelessness

The DIVA exhibition is not just a tribute to individual performers but a celebration of the ever-evolving concept of a Diva. It is a journey through time, tracing the footsteps of these women who, with their talent and persona, have left an indelible mark on global culture. Through fashion, music, and art, the exhibition chronicles the evolution of the diva – from the revered goddesses of yesteryears to the influential icons of today.

As the doors of Gallery 40 open on 24 June 2023, visitors can expect a confluence of nostalgia, reverence, and wonder, all blended into a unique experience that celebrates the unparalleled magic of the Diva. Don’t miss this opportunity to walk through the annals of history and relive the moments that made these women the icons they are today.


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