Born August 7, 1876
"I can't swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline."
The Swimmer from Down Under
Annette Kellerman is born July 6, 1887 in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Her initial fame is athletic. Beset with infantile paralysis, Kellerman begins swimming as a therapy; she wins her first title, Swim Champion of New South Wales, in 1902 at the age of 15. Long distance swimming becomes a specialty and she shortly thereafter sets the women's world record for the mile. She begins performing at the Melbourne Exhibition Aquarium, diving into a 60 foot glass tank shared with fish.
In 1905 Kellerman takes her emerging act to London, attracting huge crowds swimming in the Thames. She attempts to swim the English Channel three times (and fails) but beats male swimmers in races in Paris and in the Danube.
The Bathing Unitard is Invented
Kellerman begins rebelling against the prevailing rigid dress code for swimwear early in her career, and argues that a bathing dress over hose or tights is cumbersome for swimming. Legend has it Kellerman invents the one-piece bathing unitard after being invited to exhibit her swimming and diving skills before members of the Royal Family at London's Bath Club. She is forbidden to show any bare leg so she purchases a long pair of black stockings and sews them onto a boy's short racing swimsuit (AK0650)
Kellerman's "one piece all-over Black Diving Suit" clings tightly to the body and accentuates every curve, but meets its modesty requirement. By 1909 it is the costume of cigarette girls as well as Hollywood pinup Mable Norman (MN1250). It may also have sparked Kellerman's advocacy for women's rights.
Vaudeville and Show Business
By 1907 Kellerman was an international star and following a winter season at the London Hippodrome she brought her aquatic vaudeville act to New York, Chicago, and Boston. Her act in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome included high diving, stunt swimming, underwater dancing and the introduction of synchronized swimming. It is fitting at Esther Williams, famous in the 1940s for synchronized swimming moves, would play her life story in the 1952 film, Million Dollar Mermaid.
The Swimsuit Arrest
When Kellerman's tour arrives in Boston events conspire to rocket Kellerman into even greater fame. She is arrested wearing a thigh-revealing one-piece swimsuit on Revere Beach and charged with indecent exposure (AK0750). The bathing costume is what Bikini Science labels the maillot pantaloon, a unitard with no legs. The conflict generates world-wide publicity if only because it brings into public view that which had here-before been confined to the theater and bedroom. The case is dismissed when the judge accepts Kellerman's arguments for the necessity of unrestricted movement when swimming.
Although the Kellerman full-body bathing unitard will continue to be a trademark and much imiated in early Hollywood, it is the more compact bare-legged maillot pantaloon which will now accelerate its migration from the pinup postcard to the real beach, perhaps via the maillot skirted pantaloon.
Folklore suggests that Kellerman is the inventor the women's one-piece bathing costume, both the bathing unitard (e.g. C1909A), as well as the later shortened bare-leg version, or what today formally classify a maillot pantaloon. However an examination of this period of the late oughts suggests Kellerman understood both the Victorian bathing dress as well as the pinup. The all-over bathing unitard is the bathing dress minus the dress. The bathing maillot (the maillot pantoloon) already exist as a pin-up costume in the safety of a photo studio faux beach. Kellerman the performer advocates the practical, but she is also bending the limits of decency. And decency is one of the causes she will take up.
Needless to say, by the mid 1920s the one piece maillot had become the international standard for not only pinups but all beaches.
The Movies...and More Bare Legs
The national uproar that followed the Revere Beach arrest helped catch the attention of the emerging movie business, and in 1909 her swimming, high-diving vaudeville act, and physical culture exercises are documented in a 20 minute long one-reeler made by Vitagraph Company. She is clad in her full-body unitard, complete with feet (AK0915). Tragedy and Biblical epics follow--The Bride of Lammermoor: A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland (1909), she plays Jepthah's Daughter: A Biblical Tragedy (1909), The Gift of Youth (1909), and Entombed Alive (1909)--but in the early 1910s the "Australian Mermaid" finds à natural niche in aquatic pictures. She stars in Siren of the Sea (1911), as the Mermaid (1911), and plays Nepture's Daughter, Annette, in a 1914 picture that advances bareleggedness in the movies (AK1410). By the early 1910s Kellerman's bare legs are conspicuously on display in multiple venues (AK1E60).
The Aquatic Nude Cinema
Having now transversed through an aquatic mythological landscape wearing less and less to an audience that demands more and more, Kellerman in the late 1910s rises to the role of nude goddess, staring as Anita, in A Daughter of the Gods (1916) (AK1610). Less is more.
There is nothing trivial about this event. The previous year witnessed the epic Birth of a Nation and (separately) the instant fame of Theda Bara, the Vamp. Hollywood is changing from the 20 minute movie to the feature, and A Daughter of the Gods is the most expensive movie ever made and the first to cost over one million (1916) dollars. The picture is shot in Jamaica, where huge sets are constructed. The final running time is three hours (180 minutes or double a typical feature today) and includes an original score played by a live orchestra during each screening. Kellerman is not the first woman to appear naked on film (one must consider Andrea Munson (MU15-21), but she is the first big-name star to appear nude in a big-time production. Need we remember that the film was a huge box-office sensation?
The Post-Climatic Years
Never shy, Kellerman is also an early adopter of the soutien-gorge and skirt silhouette, here combining her fitness body with a bandeau and low waistline skirt (AK1620), and here in what appears to be an Orientalist movie still (AK1L50). She is not alone in this--she has Theda Bara to contend with for example--but as one of the world's leading movie stars is certainly not behind the times. Some have claimed that in addition to being a physical fitness advocate and vegetarian that Kellerman was also an advocate of the naturalist lifestyle, although the only widely distributed nudes of her are from A Daughter of the Gods.
Following that smash and controversy, Kellerman plays The Mediterranean in National Red Cross Pageant (1917), but quickly returns to the deep as Merrilla, a mermaid and the Queen of the Sea (1918) (AK1850). She writes two books encouraging women to exercise, How to Swim (1918) and Physical Beauty and How to Keep It (1919), and lectures throughout Europe and America. She plays Annabel Cotton in What Women Love (1920) and is again aquatic as Shona Royale in Venus of the South Seas (1924). She is 37 years old.
Sometime before the 1940s Kellerman returns to live in her native Australia. During the war she is active entertaining troops and has an interesting déjà vu event occur in 1943.
Back in America the Supreme Court decides a case involving Esquire magazine vs. the Post Office. During the initial proceedings Esquire had shown a 30 year old picture of a bathing beauty to the Post Office's expert, a strident feminist who declared that although the lady in the 1913 bathing suit is sufficiently attired for 1943 standards that her attitude and pose are "indecent." The following day the "expert" is dismayed to find herself humiliated in the press because the indecent hussy is none other than her feminist idol, Annette Kellerman (AK1350).
"Strong minded and fiercely brave, Annette Kellerman high-dived onto the international stage challenging preconceptions of how women should look, act and think, and captured the hearts of a generation," writes a review of her biography on Amazon.com. She dies November 5, 1975 in Southport, Australia.
An alternation spelling of her name is Annette Kellermann (after her father).
The sources here include powerhousemuseum.com for many of the facts, fortunecity.com for the filmography, and pictureshowman.com for the Daughter skinny. Also a-r-t.com. See also a biography by Emily Gibson & Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, 2006.
Annette Kellerman popularized the one piece swimsuit.