How Fashion Forged The Diva

by Joshua Graham on 30 June 2023

The V&A’s latest blockbuster exhibition, DIVA, celebrates the era-defining performers of the last century through their iconic fashion.

The V&A’s latest blockbuster exhibition, DIVA, celebrates the era-defining performers of the last century through their iconic fashion.

Whether you’re a Little Monster, Arianator, a proud member of the Beyhive, or part of Rihanna’s Navy, all superfans can agree that fashion is one of the defining factors of their favourite pop star. On and off stage, the visual component in crafting a diva’s persona is often just as important as their stage presence, charisma and musical abilities. At least, that’s one of the many overarching themes explored in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, DIVA. Curated by Kate Bailey, the audio-visual exhibition celebrates the era-defining performers of the last century by showcasing some of their most iconic fashion moments and explores the ever-changing definition of the diva.

Cher, Elton John and Diana Ross at the 1975 Rock Awards photographed by Mark Sullivan.

‘How do you trace that lineage of artistry?’ is the question Bailey poses at the exhibition preview and was the starting point for her research. The show begins by looking at the 19th-century Italian opera scene, where the term diva as we know it became popularised to describe the ostentatious (i.e. fabulous) female stage performers. Derived from the Latin 'dea', meaning goddess, it was an apt label for these stage stars known for their extravagant, beyond-human personas.

New levels of fame and wealth afforded these female stars a degree of power and influence unheard of beyond the aristocracy. ‘They had the wealth to commission their own couture gowns’, Bailey tells me. While a long way away from the Women’s Liberation Movement, these new levels of celebrity allowed these stage stars agency over cultivating their image off-stage, outside of marital or familial pressures and obligations.

Grace Jones, Drury Lane, 1981 photographed by David Corio.

Of course, these newfound liberations were met with resistance rooted in misogyny. Within patriarchal society, the meaning of the word 'diva' would change from a term of deified reverence to something entirely negative. Stars that once burned so bright were thus labelled as difficult to work with and unreasonable. The exhibition uses golden-age Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, who were (and often still are) infamous for their demanding ways. While an important part in Bailey's retracing of the diva's history, it's one that she hopes to counteract with the exhibit. In his speech during the grand opening, V&A director Dr Tristram Hunt explained the exhibition 'reexamines, reclaims [and] rethinks the multifaceted role of the diva'.

'When somebody doesn't look very interesting, you kind of miss them immediately' - Bob Mackie

To Bailey, one of the most important aspects of redefining the diva is their agency in developing a visual identity. 'I think the diva persona and the diva identity and how they look and how they choose to step out on stage is a very powerful narrative.' The exhibition puts visual identity at the forefront by displaying costumes and red carpet-looks from the 19th century to today. Notable looks on display include Marilyn Monroe's Some Like It Hot dress designed by Orry-Kelly, Rihanna's custom Maison Margiela 2018 Met Gala look, a moulded Issey Miyake bustier famously worn by Grace Jones, and Tina Turner's flame dress designed by Bob Mackie.

Tina Turner wearing the Flame dress designed by Bob Mackie, 1980 photographed by Gai Terrell.

In fact, the American designer is featured prominently throughout, with the entirety of Cher's section showcasing the various costumes he has created for her throughout her career along with sketches of his designs. Mackie even made a cameo at the grand opening, with the famed American designer telling me 'the visuals are very important. I always think of clothes for theatrical performers as part of the entertainment value.' When asked why the visuals are so important, he explained 'When somebody doesn't look very interesting, you kind of miss them immediately, I think'. Touché.

For Bailey, the visual aspect of the diva persona is about more than entertainment value, it's about empowerment. 'Today the diva exists in music videos, photography, on stage, off stage, from the Met Gala to stadiums. At the end of the day, only the diva can step out and the diva needs to feel power and fashion helps them find that'.

DIVA installation shot courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

While the spotlight shines solely on the diva, Bailey doesn't hide the fact that collaboration and creative partnerships like Cher and Bob Mackie's long-standing relationship are integral to crafting the diva persona. 'The diva can't do it on her own', she admits. Another important relationship featured in the exhibit is that of Lady Gaga and SHOWstudio director Nick Knight, who loaned a print from the Born This Way album shoot to be displayed for the first time. Behind the Valentino Couture dress the megastar wore to the 2019 Golden Globes, plays the Nick Knight-directed music video for the title track of her sophomore album. 'He’s defined her through the music video Born This Way. Capturing Gaga in so many multifaceted personas. She couldn’t do that on her own.’

Outtake from the Born This Way album cover shoot by Nick Knight

Whether a fan of today's divas or the ones that paved the way, the V&A's DIVA exhibition expertly retraces the evolving meaning of the word. Using fashion to highlight themes of autonomy and misogyny, even the most stubborn pop-culture pessimist is sure to see that the at its core the diva is about much more than frivolous entertainment and sparkly gowns. Though there are no shortage of them for fashion fans to drool over. 'Whether it was Sarah Bernhard taking image-making into her own hands, that role of being able to express who you are, your sense of self, multiple identities feel intertwined with the story of the diva', says Bailey.



Born This Way

28 February 2011
Lady Gaga's iconic Born This Way video, directed by Nick Knight. Plus exclusive extra content.

Monster Ball

04 October 2011
Lady Gaga collaborated with Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben to create a number of films for her epic Monster Ball tour in 2009.

White Christmas

25 December 2012
As a very special Christmas gift, SHOWstudio is releasing a previously unseen festive film of Lady Gaga.
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