The next blockbuster exhibition coming to the V&A Museum in Kensington is a celebration of the diva, from 19th-century opera singers to today’s pop stars.
Visitors to London are in for a treat this summer with this show. Opening June 24, the extravaganza will bring together some of the most recognizable outfits worn by the biggest performers in the worlds of pop music, film, theater and opera.
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The V&A is now stranger to fashion exhibitions, with hit recent presentations including 2019’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which sold out its run. In September, the museum will mount a landmark retrospective on Coco Chanel.
Stemming from the Latin word for goddess, the term “diva” was initially used to express praise for opera singers in the Victorian era – yet has today become less a compliment than a criticism. With DIVA, the V&A aims to “reclaim” the term, in part by extending its definition to all genders.
“Today the word diva holds a myriad of meanings,” said Kate Bailey, curator of DIVA. “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.”
Tickets are priced £20 ($25); to avoid disappointment, visitors should book in advance. Expect to spend about two hours exploring the show (though could easily spend a full day getting lost in the V&A’s permanent collection of ceramics, sculptures, textiles and other applied arts).
The exhibition will include more than 250 works, including 60 ensembles worn by such icons as Marilyn Monroe, Elton John and Cher. The pieces have been drawn from the V&A’s own collection, sourced from legendary designers or borrowed from organizations across the world. For example, Château de Milandes, the French estate of Josephine Baker, loaned one of the dancer’s couture gowns, while Shirley Bassey has said she is “delighted” the museum will showcase the pink Julien MacDonald gown and diamanté-studded Wellington boots she sported at Glastonbury in 2007.
Running until April 2024, the exhibition will be split into two parts. The first will offer historical context on the concept of the diva, tracing the origins from early opera stars through to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Film lovers can check out the black fringed dress Monroe wore in Some Like it Hot, as well as the only known surviving dress worn by silent film star Clara Bow, which the V&A says has rarely been seen outside of America.
The second half will focus on modern-day divas such as Barbra Streisand, RuPaul and Rihanna. Highlights include a selection of costumes by American designer Bob Mackie, whose flamboyant gowns have inspired generations of stars. Visitors will be able to see the dazzling “flame dress” he made for Tina Turner in 1977, alongside designs created for his longtime collaborator Cher. Another standout is the Louis XIV–inspired outfit Elton John wore for his 50th birthday party, made by costume designer Sandy Powell and topped off with a towering wig and a 15ft train.
The V&A has more glam-rock couture on the horizon: the museum recently acquired an extensive archive from the estate of David Bowie, which will go on display at its new Stratford outpost, the V&A East Storehouse, in 2025.