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Annette Kellerman – the modern swimmer for modern women

Australians can thank Annette Kellerman every time they take a swim. In 1905 she invented the streamlined one-piece swimming costume for women, a liberating garment, which became her trademark. But more than that, she re-awoke the sheer pleasure of swimming for everyone: men, women and children.

Annette Kellerman at around 18 years of age. Courtesy Hilton Cordell Productions and National Museum of Australia.

Known as the 'Diving Venus' and the 'Australian Mermaid', Annette Kellerman (1887–1975) was an athlete as well as a vaudeville and movie star, one of the most famous women of her day. She offered a powerful mix of innovative underwater performances, perfect physique, revealing costumes, skilful handling of publicity, and record breaking athletic feats.

By the 1800s, European society had segregated itself from freedom in the water. Most people could not swim, women certainly could not swim in the cumbersome bathing outfits they were expected to wear, and even sailors usually could not swim. Annette Kellerman beckoned Europeans back to the water. She entranced audiences with her high dives, deft swimming, and graceful underwater movement, encouraging a freedom that was in total contrast to the Victorian sense of behaviour and dress.

Kellerman conveyed a sense of herself as an independent and free-spirited woman, as if to say: 'This is how you can be in the water, and you can live like this too'. Throughout her life Kellerman advocated the benefits of swimming. She built businesses with herself as a teacher and adviser on health and fitness, writing:

There is nothing more liberating than swimming … All life's shackles are washed away with the waves.
The Original Mermaid

Kellerman designed radically new bathing costumes which she had manufactured and then sold to a wide market. These were known as 'Kellermans'.

She felt that setting women free to really swim, through the one-piece costume she invented and fought for, was her greatest achievement. At the same time she unleashed a new sense of the female body and female physical power – the unadorned body was beautiful in itself, to be boldly displayed and admired.

Childhood – into the water in Sydney and Melbourne

As a child in Sydney, Kellerman learnt to swim to overcome a weakness in her legs caused by rickets that had required her to wear steel braces. On the advice of a doctor, her parents enrolled her in swim classes at Frederick Cavill's floating baths in Lavender Bay, in Sydney's harbor, part of a network of harbour and ocean baths.

My braces came off when I was seven and I was made to swim. At first I was terrified of the water.
The Original Mermaid

By the age of 13 her legs were almost fully healed and by 15 she had mastered all the swimming strokes and won her first race. She became a skilled diver, eventually able to dive from up to 28 metres, a record for a woman. Kellerman often competed against men, and often won.

In 1902, the family moved to Melbourne, where Kellerman was enrolled in Mentone Girls' Grammar School. Her mother taught music at the school. While still a student, Kellerman gave exhibitions of diving and swimming at the main Melbourne baths. She also performed a mermaid act at Princes Court entertainment centre. At the Exhibition Aquarium she did two shows a day swimming with fish in a glass tank. In 1903 she made stunning high dives in the Coogee scene of the spectacular The Breaking of the Drought at the Theatre Royal. This was the beginning of her extraordinary 50-year career as a performer.

World champion swimmer

To improve her family's finances, Kellerman turned to professional competitive swimming and became a champion. In 1902 she established a New South Wales record time of 1 minute 22 seconds for the 100 yards (91.4 metres), and a world record of 33 minutes 49 seconds for the mile (1.6 km). She made a long-distance swim in the Yarra River, Melbourne.

Annette Kellerman in her one-piece swimsuit, early 1900s. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

In 1905, holding all the world records for women's swimming, Kellerman set off for London with her father. There she swam 27 km of the oily waters of the Thames, from Putney to Blackwall, the first woman to do so, making front-page news. She was in the water for five hours, and swallowed what seemed like pints of oil from the surface (The Original Mermaid). In the river Seine in France, she raced against 17 men and came equal third.

In August 1905, Kellerman became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. To understand the audacity of this project you have to know that the Channel had only been swum once before, 30 years earlier. It was not until 1911 that it was crossed for a second time, by a man, and ultimately it was in 1926 that it was crossed by a woman, Gertrude Ederle. Still today, more people have climbed Mt Everest than have swum the Channel. In 1905, distance swimming techniques were not well established and the idea that a woman could do it was outside ordinary understanding.

Annette Kellerman, film frame. Courtesy The Original Mermaid, 2003, documentary.

For the attempt, Kellerman coated herself in porpoise oil and glued her goggles on. She and a group of men assembled on the shore at 2 am. The men were allowed to swim naked but Kellerman had to wear a swimsuit. After many hours of swimming she was so blinded by the salt, she could barely see ahead – and then the tide turned, sweeping all the swimmers back. Kellerman described it as 'the most terrible ordeal I ever went through' (The Original Mermaid). Eventually after three unsuccessful attempts Kellerman declared, 'I had the endurance but not the brute strength'. But she undoubtedly put marathon swimming on the map as something in which women could engage and compete.

The Daily Mirror was the first pictorial newspaper in England and it engaged Kellerman to make a series of coastal swims and documented these in pictures. Thanks to Kellerman's attempts on the Channel, these coastal swims now drew record-breaking crowds which were astonished by her aquatic feats. For this project Kellerman swam an average of 45 miles (72 km) per week. The project built her celebrity and exposed the British public to the natural female form.

Vaudeville aquatics

By 1907, aged 20, Kellerman was already an international star performing at the London Hippodrome and then in New York, Chicago and Boston. Kellerman launched a new form of vaudeville entertainment: underwater ballet combined with spectacular high-diving. She presented herself as part-mermaid, part-Venus, a mythic persona. Although she was not the first to perform underwater, she was the first to make it romantic and attractive.

Kellerman would make dramatic entrances in a long garment that would have to be discarded before her dive into a glass tank, and then emerge in a wet, body-hugging one-piece swimsuit. She flaunted her Australian identity, uttering the bushman's 'cooee' as she leapt from the high board. As well as aquatics her performances included singing, monologues, ballet, acrobatics and highwire acts.

Performance costume used by Annette Kellerman, mermaid skirt and bra top with imitation pearls and glass,1909–1940. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum: 2000/66/58.

As a child, Bethe Dean saw Annette Kellerman perform on stage:

She would dive from a fair height, having climbed her little stairs up to her platform, into a space that didn't look big enough for a flea to have a good time in. There she was in her pool, making the most beautiful patterns … It was a movement like the softness of a snake, and yet it was as though it was flying because she was so light in the way she turned and moved.

You would go there and be lost in her world. That she could do. Now that's personality! Like Nureyev. You walk on the stage and you can't see anyone else there. It's a strange quality that certain people have, and she had it.
Bethe Dean in The Diving Venus.

Dean said that this experience was her own inspiration to become a ballet dancer.

Kellerman in Neptune's Daughter', 'Universal, 1914.

Kellerman's underwater movement artistry paralleled Isadora Duncan's inspired re-making of dance as a modern art form based in natural movement. Her underwater movement was all the more entrancing because she could hold her breath for a full three and a half minutes. A troupe of 'Kellerman girls' was trained to perform choreographed movements with her in the water, foreshadowing the later sport of synchronised swimming. Kellerman's stage shows were accepted as wholesome and healthy, suitable for family entertainment, not risqué or freakish attractions.

In 1914 as part of a vaudeville entertainment show, she was earning $2,500 per week, and she became the highest paid woman on the United States vaudeville circuit. She had a long career as a vaudeville star in Europe, America and Australia. Kellerman toured Australia in 1921 with a company of 22. Theatre magazine's review said:

Hers is the first sea dance yet seen in Australia. The swimming motions are perfectly graceful, and delight both the imagination and the sight. Some of her dancing pirouettes are amazing in their effortlessness… Her lovely, lithe body and intellectual face seem to belong to a water spirit.

Advocate of the one-piece swimsuit

Women in bathing suits on Collaroy Beach, New South Wales, 1908, left to right: M Throwden, S Norris, B Emery, E Williams, I Throwden, photographer Colin Caird. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales.

Early cumbersome dress and pantaloons – impossible to swim

Kellerman was famous for her advocacy of the right of women to wear a one-piece swimsuit. In the early 1900s, women in Australia, the United States, Britain and much of Europe were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations which effectively stopped them from swimming. They were permitted to 'bathe' as a leisure activity, that is, to dip themselves in the water, but not to swim. The enjoyment of swimming that people of many other cultures in the world possessed had been out of bounds for most Western women for hundreds of years. Instead, female physicality was wrapped up in corsets and yards of cloth, and the natural pleasures of the sea were almost forgotten for women.

Birth of modern swimwear in competitive swimming

However in Australia there had been an exception: from the 1870s, women had begun to wear short legged, non skirted costumes – men's costumes – strictly for competitive swimming. This was not mixed bathing, however this zone of acceptability gave some Australian women a chance to have a real experience of swimming. In 1902 the first New South Wales State Ladies Swimming Carnival was held in the presence of men, and in the same year mixed bathing was allowed at Manly Beach, Sydney. With a climate and beaches ideal for swimming, Australians were starting to become a nation of swimmers.

Annette Kellerman wearing her controversial one-piece swimsuit, early 1900s. Courtesy George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress.

Kellerman was accustomed to wearing an Australian-style men's racing swimsuit that had no skirt and half-revealed her thighs. However this outfit was not permitted when in 1905 she was invited to give a diving and swimming performance in front of the Royal Family at London's Bath Club. To solve this problem Kellerman bought a pair of black stockings and sewed them onto her men's swimsuit, creating a full length one-piece 'figure suit'. Costume historians cite this moment as the birth of 20th century swimwear for women.

Arrested in Boston

Kellerman set out to challenge the legal restrictions on women's bathing clothes in the United States. In 1907, preparing for a promotional coast swim, she was arrested for indecency on Revere Beach, Boston. She was wearing one of her fitted one-piece costumes that had no skirt, clung to her body and revealed her thighs. The judge accepted her arguments in favour of swimming as healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water. Her arrest generated worldwide publicity. She continued to wear her one-piece swimsuit in her stage shows and public swimming events.

Kellerman designed her own line of one-piece swimsuits, which became her trademark. The 'Annette Kellermanns', as they were known, represented a new freedom for women. In addition she designed the 'modesty panel', a close-fitting skirt that came to just above the knees and sat over her existing style of one-piece.

Swimming, she believed, was the ideal form of exercise for women, one that suited women's bodies better than men's, and in which women could compete with men. Swimming became her metaphor for women's emancipation, and she felt that her role in liberating women from the old neck to knee bathing dresses was her finest achievement.

Film career

Annette Kellerman in still from Siren of the Sea, 1911.

Kellerman made herself a huge star of early motion pictures. She was the first Australian woman to star in American movies and was also a pioneer of nudity and of underwater film.

In 1908, cinema shifted from its early form as a gimmick in amusement parlours or 'nickelodeons' towards the kind of narrative film we recognise today. The early narrative films had stories lasting for 10 to 20 minutes, and in 1909 Kellerman starred in four of these short films, made by the Vitagraph Company, one of the main film producers in the United States at the time. Kellerman then went on to star in several feature films that were more than an hour long, made by the new Fox Film Corporation.

Neptune's Daughter (Universal, 1914) had long underwater scenes. It was a fairytale of a near naked mermaid. Most reviewers took no issue with the sheer flesh coloured body suits she wore on screen, noting that she strove to attain 'true beauty in her work'. Neptune's Daughter grossed $1 million at the box office.

The surviving footage of her underwater performance reveals her grace, and film lent a magical quality that seduced audiences.
Cox in Modern Times p.60

Annette Kellerman in A Daughter of the Gods, 1916.

A Daughter of the Gods (1916) was the first film to cost over $1 million. It was a three hour extravaganza set in Jamaica. Kellerman's dancing and acting skills were prominent in this film but by far its most striking feature was a series of scandalous nude scenes – the first in cinema. Kellerman's breasts and pubic area were only covered by tendrils of her long hair. This film was her biggest hit.

Kellerman starred in several other films. In Queen of the Sea (1918) she made a dangerous dive from a highwire. What Women Love (1920) shows her with bobbed hair, appearing as more the modern woman. She played characters which represented both the independent new woman and the mythic mermaid, influenced by her life and family connections with the Pacific Islands.

These connections were promoted especially in Venus of the South Seas (1924), her final film, shot in beautiful locations in New Zealand. Venus of the South Seas is remarkable in a number of ways. It contained one full 20-minute reel filmed entirely underwater, and in colour. It was the last film made using the Prizma colour system. This system employed two colours, red and green, rather than the three-colour system introduced in the 1930s. Fortunately this film still exists in its entirety.

Kellerman's silent films are:
  • The Bride of Lammermoor: A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland (1909)
  • Jephtah's Daughter: A Biblical Tragedy (1909)
  • The Gift of Youth (1909)
  • Entombed Alive (1909)
  • Siren of the Sea (1911)
  • The Mermaid (1911)
  • Neptune's Daughter (1914)
  • A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
  • National Red Cross Pageant (1917)
  • Queen of the Sea (1918)
  • What Women Love (1920)
  • Venus of the South Seas (1924)

Businesswoman – promoter of health and fitness

Annette Kellerman in 1907. Courtesy George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Kellerman pioneered a number of modern health movements. In the 1920s, she passionately advocated exercise regimes and breathing and relaxation techniques through syndicated articles, books, and educational films. She lectured on exercise and health across America and Europe, and instigated forms of home fitness advice called 'Physical Instruction By Mail'. As a businesswoman – and a lifelong vegetarian and teetotaller – she established health spas and opened a health food shop in San Diego, in 1923.

As well as designing and marketing swimsuits, from 1916 she also turned her attention to comfortable clothing for women. For example she invented and marketed 'shirtdresses', loose and reaching to the ankles, forerunners of 1920s fashions.

In 1912, after the death of her father, Kellerman proposed to and married her manager, Louis Sullivan (Jimmy). She described him as a great friend and the best husband a woman ever had. He was a great support to her and helped her to extend her talents into writing and lecturing. Kellerman wrote several books. How To Swim was published in 1918, and Physical Beauty: How to Keep It the following year.

The fundamental basis for feminine beauty is the body as a whole…
Annette Kellerman, Physical Beauty – How to Keep It

Fairy Tales of the South Seas (1926) was her book for children.

Later life and legacy

Annette Kellerman, left, with diver Mary Hoerger, Miami, 1937. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum 2012/91/3.

Kellerman lived by the beach at the Great Barrier Reef during the Second World War. She financed and voluntarily produced hundreds of charity shows for the Red Cross in wartime, entertaining troops in the South Pacific.

MGM purchased the rights to her unpublished autobiography, which became the film Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) starring Esther Williams. Kellerman regarded this film as 'a silly little yarn' and 'a namby pamby attempt'.

She and her husband, Louis Sullivan, returned to Australia to live in 1970. By this time her fame had waned in Europe and America. However her name was still known by all Australians of her generation and was seen to be part of Australia's swimming success. Her personality was always natural, breezy and full of vitality. She could do high kicks well into old age, and was swimming and exercising until shortly before her death in 1975. Her ashes were scattered over the Great Barrier Reef.

Annette Kellerman donated her wardrobe of costumes and her props to the Sydney Opera House, located near to where she learnt to swim. The collection was later passed to the Powerhouse Museum. It is a substantial collection that forms part of the museum's holdings of heritage objects relating to the performing arts.

Annette Kellerman performance poster for tour to Sweden, 1927. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum: 98987.

Annette Kellerman was a pioneer in many ways and a great feminist role model, fearless and always ready for a new challenge. She asserted the power and beauty of the female body itself, radically changing the way we see women's bodies. She promoted swimming as a great sport for women, claimed the right of women to wear streamlined one-piece swimsuits and introduced other innovations in women's dress. Her contribution to Australian swimwear has greatly influenced Australian national dress.

Annette Kellerman was also a pioneer of spectacular new forms of stage entertainment, nudity in film, and underwater cinema. And she created new ways to promote health and fitness. All these legacies left by Annette Kellerman live on today.

Note: Kellerman was the spelling she mainly used for her name, though in her fashion label and books she used Kellermann in recognition of her German roots.

Useful links

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Annette Kellerman and the modern swimsuit

Annette Kellerman Swimsuit, 1950s print, SOH collection. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum, a9180-3.

Annette Kellerman films

Annette Kellerman swimming and biography

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Last updated: 17 November 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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