Terminology Tuesday #9 Quirky and curious fashion terms: The Annette Kellerman Swimsuit

It’s Terminology Tuesday again and this week in the spotlight is…

the Annette Kellerman swimsuit…

You might have heard of her? Hopefully you have. I definitely had but was still amazed to learn of the extent of the influence she had on the lives we now live.

Pictorial post card, Miss Annette Kellermann, Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver of the World

Pictorial post card, Miss Annette Kellermann, Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver of the World. State Library of N.S.W. photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/6940033817/

Annette Kellerman (originally Kellermann), (1887 – 1975) was an Australian athlete, vaudeville and movie star and successful entrpreneur. In fact she was one of the most famous women of her time. Suffering from Rickets as a child, a condition which often results in weakened and deformed legs, Kellerman took to the water upon medical advice once her steel braces were removed. She learned to swim despite her initial fears and contrary to social norms of the time. In the Victorian era, European and American societies did not generally partake in swimming for pleasure. Most women were unable to swim and even if they were inclined were expected to wear heavy cumbersome clothing and not actually swim, just wade. However in Australia, women had adopted men’s swimming attire although strictly only for competitive swimming.

Holiday bathing dresses

Holiday bathing dresses. photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27413256@N06/4546707945/

The Weir, Nepean at Penrith by Arthur Judges (c.1910)

The Weir, Nepean at Penrith by Arthur Judges (c.1910). photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pellethepoet/10340153424/






Kellerman’s achievements were many and significant. However, her most notorious achievements and those of which she was most proud are centred around her development and advocation of sensible swimming attire for women. She was even arrested for indecency in 1907 on Revere Beach, Boston for being seen in public wearing her fitted one piece that had no skirt and clung to her figure.

Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman. 1907 photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/118342027@N06/12989638105/

This photo shows Kellerman wearing her Australian style mens racing swimsuit that originally sported short legs. However she was not permitted to wear this outfit for her 1905 diving and swimming performance for the Royal Family at London’s Bath Club and so she attached a pair of black stockings, sewing them onto her mens swimsuit creating a one piece “figure suit”. This moment is cited as being the birth of women’s 20th century swimwear.

Bathing girls wearing suits with "O.P.B.," Revere Beach

Bathing girls wearing suits with “O.P.B. (One Piece Bathing suit. presumably in support of Annette Kellerman), ” Revere Beach 1919. Boston Public Library. photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/7087994845/

Kellerman went on to design, produce and promote her controversial, liberating “Kellermann” swimsuits as well as advocating the benefits of swimming for health and pleasure by men, women and children. She said” This is how you can be in the water, and you can live like this too” “there is nothing more liberating than swimming… all life’s shackles are washed away with the waves.”

Vintage Advert for Annette Kellerman "The Body Beautiful" mail order book and course 1915

Vintage Advert for Annette Kellerman “The Body Beautiful” mail order book and course 1915. photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/charmainezoe/5269800916/

A brief history of the achievements and impact of Annette Kellerman:

  • overcomes illness and disability to become a skilled swimmer by age 15
  • learns to dive from up to 28 metres, often competing against and beating men. Highly unusual at the time.
  • As a student gives diving and swimming exhibitions at the Melbourne Baths
  • Performs a mermaid act at the Princes Court entertainment centre.
  • Performs 2 shows per day swimming with fish in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium.
  • In 1903 performs stunning high dives in the “Coogee” scene of “The Breaking of the Drought Spectacular” at the Theatre Royal.
  • In 1902 sets NSW records for 100 yards and world records for 1 mile races.
  • Long distance swimming in the Yarra River, Melbourne.
  • In 1905, holding the women’s swimming world records, heads to London with her father.
  • Swims 27kms of the oily waters of the Thames from Putney to Blackwell. The first female to do so.
  • Races in the Seine river in France against 17 men and places equal third.
  • In 1905 performs for the Royal family at The London’s Bath Club in her modified men’s swimming costume and stockings.
  • Also In 1905 becomes the first female to attempt to swim the English Channel. At that time the channel had only been swum once before.
  • Takes up coastal swimming documented pictorially by The Daily Mirror. Swimming an average of 72kms per week in front of record breaking crowds.
  • Exposed the British public to the natural female form and built acceptance of its image.
  • In 1907 is arrested for Indecency in Boston. Judge lets her off the hook after she explains her philosophy on swimming as exercise, the cumbersome nature of accepted swimming attire and promises to wear a robe until she enters the water.
  • Also In 1907 an international star performing at the London Hippodrome, and in New York, Chicago and Boston, invents a new form of vaudeville entertainment called Underwater Ballet. The birth of the sport of synchronised swimming once she adds  a group of “Kellerman Girls” to support her.
  • Her underwater art form is in parallel to the remaking of dance as a modern art of natural movement by Isadora Duncan.
  • By 1914 earning $2500 a week, the highest paid female on the American vaudeville circuit.
  • First Australian women to appear in American movies.
  • A pioneer of nudity in film in 1916.
  • Pioneer of creation of underwater filming.
  • Stars in early narrative films.
  • Pioneering for representing modern, empowered female characters in film.
  • In the 1920’s lectures and educates on exercise, breathing and relaxation techniques. Establishes health spas and health food shops.
  • Designs not only swimsuits but other comfortable clothing for women. In 1916 invents the “shirtdress” forecasting loose 1920’s styles.
  • Writes several books including “How to Swim” and “Physical beauty: How to keep it.”
  • Financed and produced charity shows to entertain troops during World War 2.
  • PHEW! and CRIKEY!

Here a some lovely images from her life in film:

Hollywood - Annette Kellerman - 1916

Hollywood – Annette Kellerman – 1916 photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnkirkup/9630162681/

Cigarette card with photograph of Annette Kellerman in costume from the film A Daughter of the Gods, c 1916

Cigarette card with photograph of Annette Kellerman in costume from the film A Daughter of the Gods, c 1916. Australian National Maritime Museum. photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anmm_thecommons/7188212879/

June 17 - Modern - Annette Kellerman in "A Daughter of The Gods"

June 17 1917 – Modern – Annette Kellerman in “A Daughter of The Gods” photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39782038@N02/4556330362/

Annette Kellerman, 'the original mermaid'

Annette Kellerman, ‘The Original Mermaid’ The National Film and Sound Archive Australia. photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nfsa/9234068483/


The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia holds a significant collection of Annette Kellerman memorabilia. See it here online.

What a woman!

Happy Tuesday,


To read more Terminology Tuesday posts click on the Culture tag in the “Let’s Talk” cloud top right of the home page.

OR click here to read my previous post.

* Bibliography: The Fairchild Books Dictionary of Fashion 4th Edition by Phyllis G.   and Sandra J. Keiser

Annette Kellerman – The Modern Woman by Kathryn Wells 17th November 2013, http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/annette-kellerman


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