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The divas who changed the world enter the museum

The Victoria & Albert Museum of London presents an exhibition that celebrates the creative individuality of singing icons. From Maria Callas to Beyoncé, Elton John, Prince and Lady Gaga, all have altered the status quo

El vestido de Balenciaga que Rihanna llevó en la MetGala
The Balenciaga dress that Rihanna wore to the 2021 Met Gala.Peter Kelleher
Rafa de Miguel

Being an influencer is not the same as being a goddess. Not everyone can create a distinct universe that also manages to alter the world around them. It’s not easy being Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo, Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe, Cher, Tina Turner, Barbara Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Elton John, Madonna, Freddy Mercury, Blondie, Prince or Beyoncé.

To explore the phenomenon behind those icons, London’s Victoria & The Albert Museum presents, from next Saturday until April 7, 2024, the exhibition DIVA. It presents, on the one hand, individuals who reached the top through creativity and an artistic approach capable of breaking the conventions of their time, and on the other, personalities who turned the ideas of a generation upside down and influenced the debate around race, gender and social injustice. “Look at Beyoncé and her song ‘Formation.’ The screen behind us shows the video,” says the curator of the exhibition, Kate Bailey, to EL PAÍS. “It is a statement in defense of the Black Lives Matter movement and a show of activism in favor of equality. The way she uses her voice in defense of feminism is as powerful as that of the divas of other eras. Or Rihanna, with her open way of expressing her Caribbean heritage, helping to create new forms of inclusion. And Lady Gaga, who speaks to her audience to promote gay liberation and the LGTBQ community,” says Bailey.

It all started with the unconditional adoration of the prodigious voices of 19th century opera, the first to receive the title of “goddesses”: Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti, women capable of acquiring independence and a social level far beyond others of their time. They were followed shortly thereafter by the ladies of the Victorian theater scene, whose acting skills, in a world dominated by men, gave them power that some of them used for social causes: Ellen Terry, the Queen of Drama at the time, gave such power to the female Shakespearean characters she played that she had a legion of followers, and acquired enough influence and power to launch the League for the Suffrage of Actresses.

Then came goddesses of the cabaret and the music hall, like Josephine Baker, spy and hero of the French resistance, an icon of the fight against racism. The rise of film brought Hollywood goddesses like Garbo, Marilyn and Judy Garland. The first phase of divas culminates with La Divina, Maria Callas. The dress she wore in 1952 for her glorious rendition of Bellini’s Norma and the aria Casta Diva, for the Covent Garden Opera Company, is a preview of the display in the second room of the exhibition.

The wardrobe of a diva

Only a permanently burning goddess can wear something like the Flame Dress, the perfect synthesis of glamour, glitter and brevity made for Tina Turner to set the stage on fire. Designed by Bob Mackie, one of the most celebrated and sought-after stylists among American singers and actresses, its originality led other divas, such as Beyoncé or RuPaul, to imitate it. “Tina, Tina...wild, fun, immensely talented and popular with the public. Her show was magical,” Mackie, who traveled to London for the opening of the exhibition, told EL PAÍS.

The Flame Dress designed by Bob Mackie for Tina Turner.
The Flame Dress designed by Bob Mackie for Tina Turner.Peter Kelleher

His dresses for Cher, with the touch of excess exported from Las Vegas to the rest of the world, occupy the center of a room that stretches in all directions to present the music, image and costumes of other goddesses crowned in recent decades. It is no longer enough to celebrate women, but a femininity that transcends gender: Elton John and the Louis XIV-inspired gown, including wig, designed by Sandy Powell for the singer on his 50th birthday; Prince’s shoes and his universal androgynous symbol in the form of a zipper; and the reclaiming of femininity that drag queens like RuPaul represented.

“There is no ‘divo’ with the same meaning. The diva has to embrace fluidity, she has to have the necessary consideration of other genders,” explains Bailey. “The themes, the motifs that the divas embrace emerge in historical performances such as those of Freddie Mercury, or Elton John dressed as Louis XIV. It is a whole show in which identity is expressed through costumes and extravagance”.

Dresses designed by Bob Mackie for Cher.
Dresses designed by Bob Mackie for Cher.Peter Kelleher

The garments on display range from Amy Winehouse’s short dress to the little black one of Edith Piaf, the fascinating creations by Balenciaga for Rihanna and the Casa Valentino dress with which Lady Gaga dazzled at the 2019 Golden Globes. The exhibition also highlights the punk aesthetic that Debbie Harry and designer Stephen Sprouse created for Blondie’s 1979 European tour, a sort of pajama set made of impossibly bright yellow and orange synthetic elastic fabric. “Fashion must always be a little dangerous,” said the singer.

There are also divas without glamor, but with an overwhelming personality, like Joan Baez; goddesses capable of bringing a social earthquake to the streets, like Nina Simone; and women who own their work and creations who have endured decades on the front lines, independent in an industry controlled by men, like Barbara Streisand, Liza Minnelli —a diva born of a diva— and Dolly Parton. The Victoria & Albert Museum has concentrated in a unique exhibition the overwhelming influence of exceptional women who have used art to improve the world that has touched them.

The journalist can’t help pointing out one omission: “Rosalía is missing,”

“I knew it,” laughs the curator of the exhibition. “I hate you, I hate you. I knew the question would come up. In these exhibitions, which take so long to work on, there comes a time when you have to draw a line. But I am convinced that she already has a place in the world of divas,” Bailey says.

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