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Diva exhibition now open at London's V&A Museum

Updated: Jan 29

The 'diva' label has been given to countless female performers over the years, from Barbra Streisand to Ariana Grande. And it usually isn't a compliment, with associations of unreasonable demands and unrealistic expectations. Remember when Mariah Carey refused to 'do stairs'?

But now the V&A is reclaiming the term in one of their current big exhibitions — and here's the full details of what visitors can expect.

What is the DIVA exhibition?

DIVA is a major show at the South Kensington museum which runs until April 2024. It celebrates the power and creativity of iconic performers.

From the opera goddesses of the Victorian era to today’s global megastars, it explores and redefines what it means to be a diva and how this has been subverted or embraced over time.

Whitney Houston in a spotlight on stage in a black and white photograph
Whitney Houston performing at Wembley Arena, London, UK 5 May 1988. Photo © David Corio

There's 250 objects on show, drawn from the V&A collection and loans from across the world.

For many visitors the highlights are the over 60 diva 'looks' which have rarely been seen before, if at all. These include:

  • 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)

  • Iconic costumes designed by fashion designer for the stars Bob Mackie, including looks worn by Tina Turner and P!nk

  • Sir Elton John's iconic Louis XIV-inspired look he wore to his 50th birthday celebrations, complete with towering powdered wig and train and designed by Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell

White fur coat and wig ensemble on a mannequin
Elton John 50th birthday look with wig and boat hat, designed by Sandy Powell, 1997 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A highlight for all diva-admirers is Shirley Bassey’s couture pink gown and diamanté-studded wellington boots she wore on stage while playing the famous Glastonbury 'Legends Set' in 2007.

Dame Shirley said she was "delighted" that her sparkling take on festival gear was being shown at the V&A Diva exhibition, and that to her, the term 'diva' is "all about the power of the voice and the ability to entertain; to succeed against odds; [and] to fight, and break through barrier after barrier."

And if this wasn't diva-filled enough, the exhibition examines the divas of today and the myriad of ways they embrace and utilise their divadom.

There's displays looking at subjects such as: the divas who have expanded their affairs into the worlds of business and big branding, such as Rihanna, Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand; the divas who used their voices to enable social and political change such as Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald; and how the divas like Siouxsie Sioux and Missy Elliott shifted the needle into new genres. There's also several costumes worn by Cher across the decades, because how could there not be.

Kate Bailey, curator of DIVA, has said that "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.”

Bailey said she was inspired to create the show after working on the V&A’s 2017 exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, which covered the male-dominated world of opera. “I started developing [the exhibition] when I was doing the opera show. I found that I was focusing a lot on male composers and the canon of male composers,” she told the Times.

Photograph of the three performers posing for photographs
Cher, Elton John and Diana Ross at Rock Awards Santa Monica Civic Auditorium 1975; Photo Mark SullivanContour by Getty Images

How much are V&A DIVA tickets?

Tickets for Diva at the V&A are available to book now. Adult tickets are £20, student and under-26 tickets are £13. Under 12s go free!

What are the V&A DIVA exhibition reviews?

Critics have been positive about the show. In a five-star rave, Judith Woods writing in the Telegraph hailed it "a celebration of dizzying star-power" and that she "couldn’t think of a single star who was missing" from the displays.

"It’s a rare experience that can pack such poignancy and punch" she added.

Culture Whisper's Eleonore Dresch equally loved it, awarding the show five stars in her review — "one can’t help feeling utterly fascinated."

Rachel Cooke writing in the Observer says that the exhibition is "as much about performance as it is about pan-sticked individuals and their healthy egos." Her three-star review was positive, but she does admit that "the high-octane glamour" is "almost too much."

Adam Bloodworth in City AM thought that the layout and narrative could have used some work — "the exhibition’s themes can feel hard to string together" — but that ultimately "the sheer weight of stunning historical outfits...are worth the visit alone."

Inside the DIVA exhibition

Want to get a peek inside the exhibition gallery before you visit? Here's some pics from inside to give you a flavour.

DIVA at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Photograph of items on show in the exhibition including dresses on mannequins
DIVA at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A large black puffa dress on a mannequin with a screen showing a clip of Rihanna behind
An outfit worn by Rihanna on show in the DIVA exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mannequins wearing flamboyant outfits made from pearls and feathers
DIVA at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What follows DIVA?

The DIVA exhibition will close in April. But diva lovers fear not! Because there are TWO new 2024 exhibitions at the V&A which are picking up the divadom mantle.

The first — Fragile Beauty — sees another appearance by Sir Elton John, or rather, his extensive photography collection. The second — and perhaps unbeatable in the diva stakes — is a huge retrospective of supermodel Naomi Campbell, and simply titled NAOMI.

DIVA — supported by Net-A-Porter — runs at the V&A in South Kensington until 10 April 2024.

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