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Annette Kellermann: A Swimsuit for Swimming

Innovative ladies’ beach fashion from 1864.  These flannel costumes were not ideal for swimming.

For a long time it’s been common to stroll by the beach and relax, even for Europeans and Americans.  Actually swimming in the water is more of a recent development. There were “beach costumes” that one would wear while strolling on the sand, but to actually go into the water?  Well, a man might, but certainly not a lady!

Toward the end of the 19th century, that started to change. On hot days, actually getting into the water sounded nice, and more and more people wanted to do it. The problem, of course, was that swimming was difficult in the flowing, billowy clothing that was considered acceptable for beachwear. Men were starting to swim more, and women were starting to feel bold enough to try it, too. The era’s standards of modesty wouldn’t let a lady wear just anything, of course, but she needed something more appropriate for the water. By 1900, women were wearing costumes that were light enough to let them enter the water, but that were still too elaborate to allow the ease of movement that a swimmer would want. It was also common for both women and men to wear shoes designed for the beach, since beaches were often littered with sharp stones, oyster shells, broken glass and other dangers. It had not yet occurred to municipal authorities that they might want to police the beaches of these hazards.

Above: bathing shoes, circa 1880.  Below: typical woman’s bathing costume, circa 1900.

Swimming, at the time, was not so taboo everywhere in the world.  Australia didn’t have such hangups—not to the same extent, at least.  This was fortunate for young Annette Kellermann, daughter of two renowned musicians in the Australian state of New South Wales.  Young Annette had a weakness in her legs that required her to wear metal braces on them from the age of six on. At age thirteen, her parents enrolled her in swimming lessons to help strengthen her legs, and by fifteen, they’d improved to normal strength.

Though simpler bathing suits were more common in Australia than they were in many other Western countries, they were still controversial.  There was still strong sentiment that women should wear the complicated swimwear that protected beachgoers from seeing too much of the shape of the female body.  Kellermann was a forward thinker, advocating a one-piece bathing suit, coming down strongly on the progressive side of the controversy. Her opinion mattered, too.  Kellermann was one of Australia’s top female champion swimmers—something that was possible because of the unencumbering suit she wore. Her suit was of her own design, and it was as popular as she was.

Kellermann swam in public for audiences in Australia and Europe.  She was one of the first women to attempt to swim across the English Channel.  She made three unsuccessful tries at swimming the channel, finally giving up in 1905, declaring, “I had the endurance but not the brute strength.”  Still, her fame was something she felt she could capitalize on. She popularized her one-piece bathing suit, marketing her own line of swimwear, with her one-pieces popularly referred to as “Annette Kellermanns”.  

Kellermann brought her swimming act to the stage, touring with other swimmers in a vaudeville show.  She also helped to popularize synchronized swimming, taking part in the first water ballet performed at the New York Hippodrome in 1907.  The performance took place inside a glass tank. That same year, perhaps in a publicity move, Kellermann wore her one-piece bathing suit on Revere Beach in Revere, Massachusetts, and was arrested for indecency.  
Annette Kellermann in her “scandalous” one-piece.

Kellermann also tried her hand in movies.  She’s remembered for doing the first nude scene in a movie, the 1916 Fox feature A Daughter of the Gods.  (This film, a million-dollar production, is now considered lost, since no copies of it are known to exist.)  Most of her films were on aquatic themes, showing off her swimming skills. Her last film, Venus of the South Seas, was released in 1924.  It was a colorized silent film and was restored by the United States Library of Congress in 2004.  It’s her only film that still exists in its entirety.

Besides acting and swimming, Kellermann also wrote several books on themes ranging from fairy tales to health and beauty to, of course, swimming.  She married in 1926 and pulled back from public life, continuing to swim for exercise. She spent much of her life in Long Beach, California, where she owned and operated a health food store.  Late in life, she moved back to Australia with her husband, where she died at age 89, not long after being inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She’s also remembered on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where you can still see her star.

Another shot of Annette Kellermann in her celebrated one-piece.


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