London Museum Celebrates the Diva—From Marilyn Monroe to Lizzo

An upcoming exhibition will explore how the label has been applied to performers throughout history

Cher, Elton and Diana
Cher, Elton John and Diana Ross at Rock Awards Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (1975) Mark Sullivan / Getty Images / V&A Museum

What makes a diva? Is it the clothes? The attitude? Just the label itself, scornfully used by a critic?

An upcoming exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London aims to get to the heart of these questions. Opening this summer, “DIVA” will celebrate the stories of some of the biggest personalities in the performing arts over the past 200 years.

The ultimate goal of the exhibition is to understand and analyze the “myriad of meanings” contained in the word “diva,” says curator Kate Bailey in a statement. Critics use it as an insult, while artists are beginning to embrace the label.

Adelina Patti
Portrait of Adelina Patti by Franz Winterhalter (circa 1865-70) Harewood House Trust

“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 adds. 

“DIVA” will be divided into two “acts”: The first focuses on historical understandings of divas, while the second explores how the status has been reclaimed by contemporary artists. 

Before “diva,” the related term “prima donna” (Italian for “first lady”) had been used since the late 1600s to describe the female lead of an opera, typically a soprano, according to the Welsh National Opera. In the 19th century, “diva” (Italian for “goddess”) became popular “when many leading sopranos became so famous and celebrated that they almost became goddess-like in the eyes of their adoring public.”

The V&A’s exhibition begins with Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind, two of the first opera divas, who rose to fame in the 19th century. Later, the term’s definition expanded to include stars of the silver screen—from silent film actresses to golden-age Hollywood stars like Mae West and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe’s black fringed dress from Some Like It Hot (1959), which recently opened as a Broadway musical, will be on display in the exhibition.  

Lizzo wearing faux-ermine dress with "Don’t Be a Drag Just Be a Queen" sash by Viktor&Rolf (2021) Photo Gotham / GC Images / Getty Images

Also on view is a couture gown from Josephine Baker, an American-born dancer and singer who performed primarily in France—where she eventually became an agent of the French resistance against the Nazis in World War II.

“Spycraft wasn’t so much what Baker did as who she was,” wrote Lauren Michele Jackson in the New Yorker last year. “The most public of figures in her heyday, she pulled off the trick of vanishing into visibility, of disappearing into the limelight.” Just a few years ago, she became the first Black woman to be inducted into the French Panthéon. The V&A aims to celebrate Baker’s career “from performer to activist.” 

“Act Two” of the exhibition turns to more recent artists, including Dolly PartonBarbra Streisand and Rihanna. Revolutionary male divas such as Elton John and Prince are also included in this section. 

“It is wonderful to see the diva celebrated in this exhibition, and to see the V&A reclaiming the title,” says Welsh superstar Shirley Bassey in the museum’s statement. The pink gown and diamanté-studded wellington boots she wore while performing in Glastonbury in 2007 will be on display in this section.

“To me,” she adds, “‘diva’ is all about the power of the voice and the ability to entertain, to succeed against odds, to fight and break through barrier after barrier: to have your voice heard.”

DIVA” will be on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from June 24, 2023 to April 7, 2024.

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