Wednesday 9 August 2023

Lady go diva

Argh, I do love a crappy play on words and that title certainly is one of my worst.  But, anyway, it’s the best I can manage to describe what I did the other day which was not to ride nude through the streets of Coventry, but instead to go down to that lovely V&A Museum in London with a couple of friends and catch the latest exhibition: DIVA.

And it was quite an experience, my first of wearing a Bluetooth headset while wandering amid the exhibits, so you get the accompanying soundtrack to each encounter at your own pace.  (If it goes awry and you can hear Maria Callas while standing in front of a picture of Siouxsie Sioux “just turn your left ear towards the display you want and it'll correct itself,” the guide had advised.  It worked pretty well.)  It was like a gentle ride in a time machine – at one turn you can be watching and listening to Mae West on a screen where a scene from I’m No Angel plays out and then, as you walk between the cabinets and travel through the ages visually, your ears are filled with each relevant artist’s songs, from Nina Simone to Bjork, Debbie Harry to Lady GaGa, Shirley Bassey to Madonna, etc.

Debbie Harry's outfit from Blondie's European tour, 1979

Sade's ensemble from her Love Deluxe world tour, 1993

The word “diva”, originally derived from the Italian for a female deity, is very broadly interpreted at this show and it does include some whom many may not think fit that description - for example, a few young 'uns who haven't really reached legendary status, plus a handful of male “divas” are also represented (a fine pair of Prince’s bespoke high heeled boots in particular caught my eye, such small feet!)   And the label can have a pretty negative connotation too.  But when it comes to this exhibition, who cares really? - I decided not to be picky in this context!  It's a general theme, and the result is a celebration of flamboyant costume, creativity and the performing arts and with a sprinkling of politics thrown in too (feminism, racism, gender).  I found the whole thing informative and interesting, especially as there are posters, photos and illustrations plus a few other little artefacts alongside all the eye-catching garments and I just love seeing them all for real.

Prince's boots

A Dolly dolly!

Sade's hand-written lyrics for 'Immigrant', 2000

I was especially excited to see some incredibly imaginative ensembles from the more distant past, for example this astonishing two piece (and Health and Safety nightmare) worn by Josephine Baker, fantastic! 

Perhaps what struck me most about the oldest outfits on display, particularly those from early movies, was their exquisite, quality craftsmanship and intricacy.  They were beautifully preserved too.  Some of the more recent ones, whilst more extravagant and ostentatious, just didn’t compare and had an air of fancy dress party about them, to me anyway (but don’t tell anyone.  Elton would be highly insulted, I'm sure.).  And I found myself reflecting on the thought that, at the other end of the spectrum, an elaborate, delicately crafted dress worn by Clara Bow, for instance, would have really only been viewed by its cinema audience at the time in black and white, with no chance to pause, rewind, replay countless times at home, etc., and no intent to linger on its detailed splendour as we might now.  So I'm just happy that I had the chance to do a little time travelling, and to linger on them myself.

Here's some footage of Debbie in that outfit, performing Heart of Glass at the Glasgow Apollo, as part of the live set filmed by the BBC on New Year's Eve 1979.

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