What makes a diva? With over 250 objects, including costumes, headpieces and archival posters, the V&A’s latest exhibition ‘DIVA’ seeks to answer this question. If “diva” still has something of a derogatory ring to it, this vast exhibition is an entertaining settling of the score, illustrating how the diva, demanding as she may be, has always been linked to progress, be it in fashion or feminism. (While I will be using female pronouns in this article, the diva is not always a she, as the inclusion of Elton John, Lil Nas X and Prince attests to.) Widening the berth to include figures – Billie Eilish, PJ Harvey – who may not fit the traditional definition, the result is a sparkling send-off to some of pop culture’s most valued figures.

The exhibition embodies that spirit by splitting the space into two: the ground floor’s “Act One” is a primer on the roots of divadom and its connection to screen performers and opera singers, as well as the feminist movement of the Victorian era. “Act Two” brings us forward to the present day, where a dazzling array of outfits shed light on the contemporary diva. Grouped thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition encourages a casual stroll, with a responsive headset providing an entertaining soundtrack as you pass through each room.

Resilience through hardship, be it mental illness, financial troubles or the sheer pressure of being so admired, is a key diva trait. Browsing through a labyrinth of rooms, the struggle of fame comes through as powerfully as its glamorous aspect. From Marilyn Monroe’s well-documented addictions to Vivien Leigh’s “difficult” reputation, you get a real sense for the miracle of being fully embodied in a dismissive world, what Rihanna defines as “the nerve to never take no for an answer”.

As one of culture’s most prominent divas, Rihanna takes pride of place in “Act Two” of ‘DIVA’ with two of her most iconic Met Gala looks featured. Her Bishop-inspired Maison Margiela get-up from 2018 and her bedazzled barely-there ballgown from 2014, emblazoned with more than 216,000 Swarovski crystals, are both on display.

What the second act sacrifices in context it makes up for in sheer spectacle, with a carnival of outfits from Cher, Bjork and Shirley Bassey. It was also spiriting to see artists like Indian “playback” singer Lata Mangeshkar represented, a reminder that the diva goes beyond the Western imagination.

The exhibition's notes discuss the diva’s use of “androgyny and performance style as tools through which to express relationships with sexuality, gender and the body,” with Katherine Hepburn’s gender-bending suit trousers and the radicalism of trans hyperpop innovator SOPHIE featured.

It is disappointing, then, that the Young V&A recently made headlines for removing gender-affirming products from their gift shop, an executive decision made by V&A director Tristram Hunt. Denying trans and gender non-conforming people the right to celebrate their own identities when LGBTQ+ communities have played a large part in the construction of divadom casts an uneasy, pinkwashed shade across what is otherwise an enlightening exhibition.

Ultimately, it is the diva’s virtue of self-belief which has led her to become such a prevailing figure across the decades. In this well-curated show, we get to see the many forms through which this innate confidence can manifest, and its uplifting energy is infectious. Viva la diva!

Discover more at vam.ac.uk...

By Matteo Pini