“Tina Turner was larger than life right up to the end,” her friend Bob Mackie, the fashion designer and collaborator on her most famous looks, said this week before the launch of Diva, a blockbuster fashion exhibition at the V&A in London, which features the late singer in a starring role.
Asked to assess how today’s divas match up with their predecessors, the 83-year-old designer, whose career spans designing for Lucille Ball and Doris Day to being a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, seemed unimpressed.
With the taste for provocation that led him to dress Cher in a Mohawk headdress for the 1986 Oscars, he pointed out that Beyoncé’s first stage costumes were made by her mother, who “used to say, ‘I look at what Bob Mackie does for Cher’” he noted.
Despite the phenomenal fashion firepower of Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour, packed with one-off commissions from the world’s hottest catwalk designers, Mackie was unmoved. “The clothes don’t really show off the talent. It looks like Naomi Campbell doing a nightclub act,” he shrugged.
The Flame dress Mackie designed for Turner in 1977 is one of the highlights of the Diva exhibition, which opens on Saturday. Sinuous ribbons of red and gold sequins swing loose from a nude corset, designed to swish around Turner’s thighs, creating an optical illusion that exaggerated the length and drama of each step as she danced.
“It was kind of a cavewoman dress,” remembered Mackie. “It didn’t just hang there like an old Halloween costume. She worked it. Tina had the best body, with the longest legs, and she used it all. When she was on stage she became rock’n’roll.”
In the great tradition of showmanship, Diva has moments of tragedy and controversy, served with a Vegas-sized portion of feathers and sequins. “Even though I knew she wasn’t well, losing Tina was a shock,” said Mackie, who knew the singer for four decades. “There was still such joy in that big rough laugh of hers. I thought she would be here for ever.”
Mackie identifies strength of will as a foundation stone of “divadom” and Turner’s personality. “In rehearsals, Tina would train her girls to dance the exact way that she wanted them to dance.”
The exhibition reclaims the word “diva” with confidence and swagger, tracing how an Italian word meaning “goddess” came to be used to critique individuals who speak loudly, and who confidently take up space – if they were not conventional heterosexual men.
Visitors will have an immersive, audio-visual experience, thanks to headsets that flick between tracks depending on which display case the wearer is closest to. The dizzying soundtrack spans Maria Callas performing Bellini’s Norma at La Scala in 1954, and Rihanna singing Umbrella.
Among the items on display is Josephine Baker’s costume, which is still sensationally risque, almost 80 years after she wore it on stage in Paris: a crystal bikini, cups suspended from fragile straps, has luscious cherry-red beading at the nipples to give an illusion of nudity, and the scantiest, frothiest of knickers.
Mackie is the godfather of the naked dress trend, much in the evidence in Diva, which has turned up the heat on red carpets over the past year, with celebrities from Lizzo to Julia Fox going nude but for a light dusting of sparkle.
“The secret is that it has to be just naked enough. You think you see everything, but you don’t. It’s a sexy thing, for sure but it’s also about someone who’s fascinating to look at. And not everyone can pull that off the way that Cher can.”
As a 23-year-old assistant to designer Jean Louis, Mackie sketched the dress in which Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy. When Kim Kardashian wore the dress to the Met Ball last year, Mackie described the loan as “a big mistake”, saying Monroe’s dress “was designed for her, and no one else should be wearing it”.
The exhibition’s curator, Kate Bailey, believes any gender can be a diva. Freddie Mercury, who once said he had more in common with Liza Minnelli than Led Zeppellin, is pictured bare-chested in tight white jeans and an ermine wrap, while Elton John’s 50th birthday costume and a pair of high-heeled black satin booties worn by Prince, custom made with cushioned soles for dancing, make an appearance.
But women are the undoubted headliners of the show. Bailey adeptly skewers the double standards of an entertainment industry which pushes its female stars to extremes and then chastises them for being too grand or demanding.
Amy Winehouse’s sunshine yellow Preen dress is poignantly styled, with the visible black bra straps that were as much a part of her look as her beehive hairstyle.
But much of the finale section of the show is a joyful love letter to the bold wardrobes of modern pop. Mackie’s barb notwithstanding, Beyoncé is celebrated in a cinema-sized screening of her Formation video.
The crystal- and pearl-encrusted dress, coat and mitre of the Pope-style outfit Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2018, and Lizzo’s white fake fur haute couture evening coat with sash emblazoned: “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” have the pomp of royal court dress, with the sass of street style.
Online talk: Bob Mackie in conversation takes place on 22 June. Diva opens at the V&A on 24 June and runs until 7 April 2024