Unveiling DIVA at the V&A

By Ivy Thaide | August 12, 2023

DIVA: A Journey Through the History
of the Ultimate Entertainment Icons

The Victoria and Albert Museum holds a special place in the heart of every art enthusiast, and as a London visitor, it has always been a personal favorite. When it was announced that the museum would host an extraordinary exhibit featuring the legendary costumes worn by divas from the entertainment industry, I seized the opportunity to see it.

Since the turn of the 19th century, divas have wielded an undeniable power within the entertainment realm. From opera houses to grand stages, the enchanting silent film starlets to the gossip-hungry studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age, divas have captivated audiences with their talents and persona. Today, the baton has been passed to modern pop icons adorning the covers of prestigious magazines like Vogue and Rolling Stone.

The exhibit grants visitors an exclusive, backstage glimpse into the captivating history of the diva, showcasing the exquisite costumes worn by icons such as Josephine Baker, Clara Bow, and Mae West. As guests journey through the exhibit, they travel through the four waves of feminism, from the 1850s to powerhouses like Nina Simone and Janelle Monae.

Organized by decade, each display is complemented by a perfectly paired piece of music, an interview, or a movie clip streamed through Bluetooth headsets. With every transition to a new area, visitors are treated to a new piece of audible history. While standing before the renowned “All about Eve” dress, masterfully crafted by CDG designer Edith Head, the voice of Bette Davis resounds in listeners’ ears, evoking the immortal line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Standing on the second floor of the exhibit, visitors are immediately transported into a world of awe-inspiring costumes. The space is adorned with breathtaking ensembles worn by renowned artists such as Rihanna, Prince, Lizzo, Bjork, Bette Midler, and Freddie Mercury to name a few. The arched ceilings mimic the night sky, featuring celestial images that merge the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, and Mariah Carey, each belting out a solo that resonates through the space.

Like a beacon of sequined light, the true divas themselves take center stage; Tina Turner and Cher, designed by our own Bob Mackie, in gorgeous headdresses accompanied by magnificent color sequined dresses detailed with crystalized feathers. Mackie attended opening night for the exhibit and commented, “I’m delighted to have my costumes in this amazing exhibition, DIVA! The exhibition has costumes going back to the 19th century opera singers, Hollywood film star and modern pop stars – great company for Tina and Cher!”

Another unforgettable figure gracing the exhibit is none other than Sir Elton John. For his 50th birthday outfit, Sir Elton enlisted the talents of costume designer Sandy Powell. True to Sir Elton John’s flamboyant style, Powell crafted an extraordinary ensemble inspired by King Louis XIV, embellished with dazzling Swarovski crystals and adorned with a regal feathered cape fit for a King.

For book collectors, there is a captivating piece that deserves a prominent place in any designer’s library: The Diva, featuring the enigmatic Grace Jones on its cover. I was very thankful for my British team who gifted me a copy. It is a cherished memory of my time there on location.