Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s giving Cher: the V&A’s DIVA exhibition, reviewed

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest sold-out exhibition enables viewers to discover how the grande dames of Victorian opera paved the way for the paragons of modern pop music. Displaying a variety of material, from vintage theatre advertisements to genuine Met Gala fashion garments, every piece of set dressing has been carefully crafted to communicate the opulence of these performers. Such an experience only necessitates a one-word title: DIVA.

Closing on April 10th, DIVA is a golden ticket to uncovering centuries of reverence for the characteristics possessed by modern-day pop culture icons: confident, forward-thinking, fashionable, risk-taking. Marrying the worlds of the old divas and the new, the exhibition breathes new life into a concept that has recently been discussed to death.

From the moment you step behind the curtain, the curatorial care put into the experience is made plain. Moving between exhibits, music related to what you see before you plays in the headphones provided to each visitor. Whether an excerpt from a pioneering opera recording or a Lady Gaga album cut, it sells the illusion that these divas are alive in the building, walking amongst you as you peruse their performative wares.

As a History student, it was a personal thrill to learn more about the roots of modern divahood. The ground floor of the exhibition casts your eye back to the oft-forgotten legendary figures that inspired contemporary notions of a diva; from Spanish opera singer Maria Malibran, to French theatre queen Sarah Bernhardt. Seeing the posters, portraits, and illustrations depicting these performers was just as enthralling as seeing the clothes they wore, a notion crystallised in one of the most spectacular exhibits in the whole experience, dedicated to Josephine Baker. 

Situated in the centre of the ground floor, the exhibit presents a dynamic image of the star. Her famous banana skirt is celebrated, alongside other identifying elements of her long and multifaceted career. Compared to other faces of the exhibition who might only be represented by a single dress or poster, Baker’s star power is perhaps the most carefully curated of all those featured in DIVA. Even when situated beside the sumptuous gowns and headpieces of Bette Midler, Baker’s flamboyant style and worthy place among pop culture royalty, are provided with ample breathing room.

DIVA also admirably holds space for the opera producers, costume designers, and other behind-the-scenes creatives, who played a part in constructing the classical diva. Perhaps most notable among these celebrated artists is Bob Mackie, whose work in costuming the likes of Judy Garland, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand deservedly receives its due.

Moving to the first floor of the exhibition, you realise the sheer stature of divadom, figuratively and literally. The costumes on show are undoubtedly some of the most iconic celebrity pieces ever worn, including Whitney Houston’s 1994 Grammys gown; Tina Turner’s flame dress by Bob Mackie; and Rihanna’s papal garb for the ‘Heavenly Bodies’ Met Gala theme. These masterful costumes serve as a reminder of the mental and physical power required to take on the diva persona, but also that such a costume came naturally to many of the performers honoured here.

Stage presence also figures into many of the presentations, with some mannequins even being displayed on top of the regular exhibit stages, making their ethereal presence all the more imposing. Clips of music videos ranging from Beyoncé’s “Formation” to RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” emphasise the eccentric physicality that inhabiting the spirit of divadom requires, whether it be executing a perfectly choreographed dance routines, or voguing the house down. In these visual tributes there are also some touching nods to icons of diva culture who were taken too soon, such as music producer extraordinaire SOPHIE, who died in 2021 aged 34.

The acclamation of modern-day divas was particularly enjoyable to see. Given that the exhibition was being hosted at a museum as prestigious as the V&A, I had worried on the journey that the curators might glance sneeringly at the inheritors of the cultural legacy they seek to display. Instead, modern innovators like Doja Cat, Janelle Monáe, and Lil Nas X were happily celebrated alongside their more storied compatriots. Cher, Tina Turner, and Shirley Bassey might take pride of place at the centre of the upper exhibition, but it’s Rihanna’s more recent fashion forays that greet visitors after ascending the stairs.

The final magical touch to the exhibition, viewable from any point during the experience, is the constellation of divas on the ceiling: images of Adele, Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey, Liza Minnelli, and of course Marilyn Monroe, enhance the sense of legacy that DIVA touches on. As you examine and appreciate the cultural conglomerates that have given rise to modern innovators of performance, those that paved the way, and are still doing so today sit high in the sky watching over the affair.

DIVA is a joy to watch unfold for any appreciator of pop culture today. Having opened on 24th June last year, the exhibition is sure to have inspired the hearts and minds of thousands of visitors in its 10-month staging. I feel incredibly lucky to have glimpsed that kind of stardom at the V&A before it burned out.