We all know what a Diva is, but if asked to actually explain what makes a person a Diva, most of us would struggle to articulate what a Diva is. That’s the conundrum of the V&A’s new exhibition, called simply Diva, which looks incredible but struggles to define what it means.

It’s a chronological look at how women carved out a space in the performance world, overcoming very Victorian prejudices about women actors, through the early silent movies, when women were seen and not heard, and the golden age of Hollywood, which wasn’t that golden for the ladies.

This opening half of the exhibition is the better half, as it pulls back the curtain on the lives of the early female stars of stage and later screen, and the often pretty appalling way they were treated.

Diva, derived from Goddess in Latin, applied initially to the opera’s leading ladies, or prima donnas, and later spread to other female stars of stage and screen. Often seen as a compliment, it spent several decades as an insult — an accusatory finger pointed at the ladies who were unladylike. Being a bit too sure of themselves and their position didn’t sit well with the men.

A lot of people though may associate the term Diva more with the 1960s Hollywood stars – the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, et al. The era of haughty glamour and big jewels, and whiffs of a decadent lifestyle that was as far from the average person as the stars themselves are in the skies above.

The exhibition ranges around these early years, from stage musicals to movie blockbusters, weaving in a mix of fashion, gossip and history to tell snippets of the lives of the women involved.

From the dark rooms of the past, upstairs is bright and white and very post-millennial in looking at the modern superstars, mainly of the music world. It’s odd now I think about it, but whereas most of the Divas of the past were from stage and screen, I don’t think that can be said to be true today, as the exhibition is almost entirely music stars.

Up here, pretty much everyone you would expect to be here is here, from the late Tina Turner to Cher, Diana Ross and younger stars who blend gender-mixing fashions with social consciousness.

And, oddly maybe, Sir Elton John, but in a costume that screams Divaesque behaviour.

You’re also given headphones to wear. The headphones aren’t the sort of audio guide you get in stately homes, but an aural experience as you wander around the exhibition, playing suitable songs and sound clips as you stand in front of each of the glass cases.

It’s a clever idea, although as someone who doesn’t really like wearing headphones, and these are quite large, I found myself removing them after about 15 minutes. I don’t think I missed that much frankly.

I also found the labels used on the ground floor to be quite difficult to read — black text on grey card in a dark room is a really poor design choice, and even the ones on white card had quite small text. Please send the designer away on a course on usability and accessibility.

There are also a few costumes you’re not allowed to photograph, but the warning sign can’t be seen unless you’re standing right next to the costume, resulting in a security guard regularly having to tell people off.

It’s a hard exhibition to judge in some senses. Despite the exceptional collection of items that have been brought together, something seemed missing – the Diva herself wasn’t here.

Yes, there are descriptions of the wearers and some of their lives and troubles, but somehow this felt more like a fashion show than an exhibition about the person who wore the frocks.

It’s a damn good fashion show but somehow lacked the Divas at the heart.

The exhibition, Diva is at the V&A Museum until April 2024.

Tickets have to be booked in advance from here, as early ticket sales sold very quickly, so if you don’t book in advance, you probably won’t get in to see it.

Adults: £20 | Young people (12-26): £13 | Under 12: Free | V&A Members: Free


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