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Maria Callas: from Diva to Icon

Maria Callas is internationally recognised as one of the most important ‘Divas’. Her popularity was motivated by her enormous talent, but surely her fashion choices, both on and off stage, weighed in her consecration as unforgettable icon.

Stage costume for Luigi Cherubini's Medea, designed by Lucien Coutaud, Courtesy Fondazione Cerratelli, All Rights Reserved

In her practice as opera singer, Maria Callas was indeed unique: an incredible interpreter, an innovator in her use of the voice, able to give unprecedented depth to the roles she took on. Her consecration on stage was enhanced by the costumes she wore, which were designed to suit her persona and immediately communicate with the audience. The costumes exemplified the encounter between the personality of the singer and the plot of the story on the body of callas, whose proverbial ability to convey emotions through her performance was in some way supported by the designs she wore. Clothes were something that she used as tools to get into the character and then made integral to the performance, accounting for them in the design of movements and gestures she designed to sew each role on herself.

Theatrical costume by Yannis Tsarouchis for Maria Callas in Medea, performed in Dallas, Texas, Courtesy Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, All Rights Reserved

Her incredible talent was counterparted by a deep insecurity, which led her to be rather clumsy in her everyday life. Her appearance was not until 1951, when she made an encounter that changed her life. It was in that year that, in the Milanese home of director Arturo Toscanini, Maria Callas met Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure, better known as Biki. Biki was an established italian dressmaker at the time, whose atelier in Milan was a point of encounter for intellectuals and socialites. Biki not only did design all of Callas’ outfits, but actually re-styled the whole look of the singer, starting the transformation of Maria Callas from opera singer to international icon.

Cocktail ensemble in wool and silk designed by Biki, 1950s, Courtesy Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti, All Rights Reserved

The relationship between Biki and Callas was well described by Hélène Blignaut in La scala di vetro (L’escalier de Verre), the biography of the designer. It is said that Biki used to provide the singer with written indications on how to compose each outfit, which were complete of accessories as hats and shoes. If Biki has contributed to the making of the ‘Diva’ Callas, the singer, in being one of the first ’testimonial’ of a brand, carried Biki’s design outside of Italy, establishing the name and fame of the designer across different places and, we can say today, across time as well.

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