Goddesses have captured the human imagination for millennia, but a new exhibition reveals how modern women rose to mythical status through their voices and public images.
Opening on Saturday, the exhibition Diva at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, will show the lives of singers, actresses and entertainers from the 19th century to the present day who dared to inspire and be themselves.
Five looks by Rihanna appear in the exhibition, including the Alaia leather-band dress fitted to show off her pregnancy and which was worn at this year's Oscars. She performed Lift Me Up, which was nominated for Best Original Song.
But earlier divas, such as Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, whose gowns are presented, reveal how women propelled their talent through fashion, photography and cinema.
“Diva tells a story of the diva from the 19th-century European opera to today's global megastars,” says curator Kate Bailey. “It really echoes the first wave of feminism.”
Among the earliest known divas was Italian opera singer Giuditta Pasta, who starred in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma in 1831. There was also Dame Ellen Terry, an English actress who became a muse for the pre-raphaelite and aesthetic movements. She gained a cult-like following as the press celebrated her larger-than-life persona and stage career.
Dancers like Isadora Duncan challenged restrictive women’s clothing such as the corset. A Grecian dress worn by Duncan, loose and adapted to shape the body, appears in the exhibition.
During the world wars, divas like French dancer Josephine Baker and German-American actress Marlene Dietrich supported military efforts by serving as spies.
Baker transcended the anonymity of a showgirl and became an international star. A 1948 book about her life as a spy for the French Resistance with a foreword by French general Charles de Gaulle is presented at the museum. The American-Greek singer Maria Callas’s enduring voice is also celebrated in the exhibition.
From the 1960s onwards, the exhibition explores “diva power", through artists such as Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and Annie Lennox. “The diva has a strong sense of self and identity. Through time, these artists have used their voices with agency for better and to help society,” says Bailey.
Welsh singer Dame Shirley Bassey, whose red gown and diamante wellington boots worn at Glastonbury in 2007 appear in the exhibition, described the diva as a fighter
“To me, '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," Bailey says.
The exhibition aims to “reclaim” definitions of the word, which are often used to shame women. Perhaps one example is American actress Theda Bara, who was known as The Vamp for her femme fatale roles that blended seduction with evil.
“Why has this term, which was associated with goddesses, become negative, why have these incredible artists been described as devious in a negative way?” says Bailey.
The sensual beaded dress that Bara wore in her role as Cleopatra is one of Bailey’s many highlights.
The term diva developed against a patriarchal backdrop, "perhaps a misogynistic perspective but here, it is reclaiming it as a positive", Bailey says.
Today, global stars like Beyonce, whose Cleopatra headpiece also appears in the show, have learnt to navigate the male-dominated music industry on their own terms.
Designer Bob Mackie created costumes for Tina Turner and Cher, which gave them the freedom to move and dance. This includes Turner’s famous flame dress, a red, orange and yellow sequined outfit with fold-out fire-shaped wings.
The exhibition also highlights female performers who used their fame to promote social justice. British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey shared the plight of British citizens at Guantanamo Bay detention camp with her song Shaker Aamer, and travelled to Afghanistan and Kosovo to write her ninth studio album.
But behind many divas is also a vulnerable backstory. A poignant reminder of this is Amy Winehouse, whose powerful voice was likened to Ella Fitzgerald, but who died aged 27 after losing her battle with drugs and alcohol.
Her stellar musical career was cut short by abusive personal and business relationships, which pushed her further into depression and addiction.
Her simple, tailored yellow satin cocktail dress by Preen appears in the exhibition – a reminder of Winehouse’s signature look, which sought to bring force and power to her small stature.
“It’s really important that you trace the historical struggles and still the struggles today,” says Bailey, “as well as the story where the diva is using their voice with agency and power.”
It is these pioneering efforts, as well as the struggles that go behind the making of a diva, Bailey hopes to convey. “Enjoy the music, but also remember that these performers are trying to push boundaries,” she says.
Diva runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until April. More information is available at www.vam.ac.uk