From David Bowie Is to Hallyu! The Korean Wave, the Victoria & Albert Museum has been responsible for some of the UK’s – probably the world’s – most exciting blockbuster exhibits of pop culture and fashion of the past two decades. The V&A’s latest exhibition, Diva, comes with an accompanying book as usual: while exhibition catalogues were once little more than souvenirs, these days the best ones make for suitable substitutions for readers who can’t go to the real thing.
Though not as satisfying as seeing the actual costumes of the megastars covered, as a photobook alone, V&A Publishing’s Diva (which includes contributions from Veronica Castro, Sasha Geffen, Keith Lodwick, Lucy O’Brien, Miranda Sawyer and Jacqueline Springer) is worth its weight in gold for anyone both dazzled and tickled by wicked words of wisdom from Mae West, designs for Josephine Baker’s iconic banana skirt, or Mariah Carey – daughter of an opera singer (“a true diva”) – being carried across a stage on a chaise lounge.
While we think of the ‘diva’ as a 20th-century invention, editor Kate Bailey traces it back 400 years earlier to Italy, when it had divine, feminine connotations: “a perfect fusion of music, words and image”. However, compared to marble statues by then-contemporary male writers, Bailey points out the dichotomy of a female performer both admired and feared for her desirability, the ‘divinity’ of her talents actually minimalising her power rather than celebrating it. In fact, prima donnas, another form of diva, weren’t seen as that different from sex workers. Just more fuel for the fire about the sexist way we historically distinguish between the male genius and his objectified and underestimated female counterpart.
This tension between adoration and damnation has followed the diva label through to this day: we all know that diva-ish behaviour means having ridiculous tour riders, frazzled minions and generally being highly strung. In the words of Bette Davis, “When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. But when a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch.” But as the book moves into the post-modern era, we find that like so many derogatory terms, diva has been reclaimed. “A diva is a female version of a hustler,” Beyonce rapped in 2008. And, of course, one no longer has to be female to be considered a diva – all part of what Bailey concludes is a “constellation of idols and worshippers” that is still evolving today.
Diva, Kate Bailey [ed]. (V&A Publishing)
Price: £25. Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS