Until the early 20th century, few women could make art and travel the world. Still fewer could do it with enough flair to become famous and stockpile a fortune in jewels while fostering gender equality. But a number of women born into families of musicians or trained in singing managed it—at least while their voices held out—as opera divas. MassArt fashion historian and artist Kathleen McDermott has put a striking touch on surviving images of 26 of them in "A Diva Story-Book, 1700-1920."

McDermott told WGBH about the project through email and a tour of her Bay Village studio. 

WGBH: Your studio is covered with historic images of opera divas. How did you draw off them when creating the illustrated note cards that make up your book?

MCDERMOTT: If you look at this stuff long enough, you start getting into this dream state. There’s so much to see. And so I sketch and really get a feel for her, and then I take a big piece of paper, and I just start putting down things and build it up.

There’s two modes: there’s the collage mode, and then there’s the mode where I feel like there’s something really mysterious about the face that I want to get to. And so I actually start with her face, and then I put it aside and begin to interpret it. I used that for a couple of the divas where I felt like something about their face I really wanted, and that's done by layering.

One of the most astonishing anecdotes in the book is about soprano Adelina Patti wearing 3,700 diamonds on stage, which today would translate into a $20 million costume. What did that sort of wealth mean for her?

Being a great diva meant that admirers gave you priceless jewels in person or threw rubies and emeralds at you in bouquets at curtain calls. 

Jewels were a good thing for women singers because, until the 20th century, many European laws prevented women from owning property and keeping the money they earned. Jewels were portable wealth; you could hide them and use them as a safety net, as retirement money.

Jewels could be part of a diva’s stage costume for another reason. If an admirer was giving her fabulous jewels and “keeping” her, she’d wear those gems and an expensive and elaborate costume onstage. It publicly acknowledged him and made her even more desirable in the eyes of men looking for prestige mistresses.

No matter how many jewels a singer possessed, she was still a performer and social outcast and, as such, never expected to marry her admirers. Jewels didn’t change one’s social standing but, the more jewels a diva had, the more she might expect.

What influenced costuming during this period, and did divas get to decide what to wear?

Stage costumes followed the prevailing fashionable silhouette. Divas needed and wanted to look their best to attract patrons and sell tickets. Divas supplied their own costumes made by Parisian couturiers, with maybe—or maybe not—some small acknowledgement to the historical period the opera was set. The main thing was to dazzle the audience and eclipse everyone else on stage.  

We see divas in Paris-based costumes in the Baroque era, and this continues for two centuries, including Empire gowns with shawls in 1805, crinoline hoopskirts in the 1850s, hip-length corsets in the 1880s, and beaded flapper styles in the 1920s.

Speaking of flappers, there was Geraldine Farrar, who was born in Melrose, Mass., and had thousands of young female fans. What was her story?

Farrar’s father, a first baseman for the Philadelphia Quakers (now the Phillies), ran a men’s clothing store in Melrose. He sold his shop, and the family moved to Paris for Geraldine’s voice lessons. 

She went everywhere and met everyone. When she came back to the Met [Opera], where she spent 17 years as its reigning diva, she was able to parlay her stage success into lucrative movie and record contracts.

She loved to talk to the press about herself, maintaining that the beauty of her Paris costumes was far more important for an opera’s success than historical accuracy. She let it be known that her Bendel’s dress account ran to $80,000 in the 1910s; it would be millions today. She also liked to talk about her acting and singing style: she developed each role all on her own and would not be directed by others, even arguing with the great conductor [Arturo] Toscanini about how fast or slowly she should sing. 

She is the diva who ushers in our modern age, and all of those old, bad parts about being a diva—social ostracism, mistress not marriage, no property rights, can’t vote—start to pass into history. 

Though these women left a rich visual legacy, many of them died poor, unknown and at the hands of their husbands or lovers. What do you make of that?

Singing is dependent on your artistry: your knowledge of music and ability to sing, but it is also dependent on your body. Pre-20th century singers started in their teens or younger, supporting their family. They did not have the control over their roles that singers do today when singing is much more professional endeavor.  They could not preserve and safeguard the voice, so their voices wore out and careers ended early.

Remember—even the greatest divas still were women and, before the 20th century, second-class citizens.  They were worshipped onstage but disrespected in the flesh and blood. Whatever money divas made could easily be spent by their family or husband—women did not have rights to their property or contracts. Five of my divas had husbands who gambled freely with their wives’ fortunes, and there was nothing anyone could do about it!  

What were some of your takeaways after wrapping up research on this project?

I was drawn to the divas as a fashion historian. I love to see how their extravagant and elaborate costumes carefully follow the fashionable look of the moment. Yet I learned, on deeper study, that their acute reliance on fashion was a kind of glamorous and gilt-edged prison, related to their specific outcast status and the second-class place of Western women in general.

Society began to change dramatically in the 1920s as women gained the vote and rights under the law. The old diva-centric system began to fade and, with it, the necessity for couture fashion and extreme jewels onstage.