words: frances ambler
illustration: maria martini
Our cover girl for issue 38 is Annette Kellerman – the swimming star who challenged Victorian perceptions about women’s bodies by ditching pantaloons and skirts and daring to bare her flesh while swimming. It’s Annette who is responsible for the swimming costume as we know it today
Record-breaking swimmer, the highest paid women in vaudeville, a health and fitness pioneer, the first major actress to both appear nude and to wear a moveable mermaid costume on film – out of all of Annette Kellerman’s notable achievements, it was her own line of one piece costumes, the foundation of modern swimwear, of which she was most proud,for it helped liberate women, allowing them – for the first time – to really swim.
Born in Australia in 1887, Annette wore steel braces as a child and took swimming lessons to strengthen her weak legs. She took to the sport like the proverbial duck to water. To help her family's finances, she became a professional swimmer. As a record breaker, Annette travelled the world raising publicity, in London swimming in the polluted Thames; in Paris, racing men in the Seine. She was one of the first women to attempt to swim the Channel.
While for most of the western world, pantaloons, skirts, even corsets, were still the norm for women’s ‘bathing’, Annette wore a short legged, non-skirted costume to compete for Australia. Invited to perform for British royalty in 1905, she sewed a pair of black stockings onto her men's swimsuit, creating a full-length one-piece “figure suit”. “I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline,” she sniffed. Such an ensemble saw her being arrested on a beach in Massachusetts for indecency. From the subsequent publicity, she designed and sold her suits worldwide, one step towards liberating the female body.
Annette also challenged Victorian perceptions of women’s physicality. Her performances combined a kind of underwater ballet with high dives, her choreographed moves with her ‘Kellerman girls’ an early form of synchronised swimming. She starred in highly successful films too, appearing unashamedly nude in the 1916 film, A Daughter of the Gods.
“I insist that swimming is not only a splendid sport for women, but that it is the sport for women,” Annette said, benefits ranging from the physical to the psychological. “If more girls would swim and dance, instead of rushing into matrimony as the only joy in the world, there would be fewer divorces.” She encouraged women to throw aside their corsets and penned books on health and fitness. A lifelong vegetarian, she even opened her own health food shop.
Annette died in 1975, at 89, having swum well into her eighties. Her swimwear got a generation of women into the water for the first time, allowing them to experience what she described as this “clean, cool, beautiful, cheap thing we all from cats to kings can enjoy".