Remembered as the ‘Diving Venus’ and the ‘Australian Mermaid,’ Annette Kellerman was truly a superstar. She was a writer, a film actress, a business owner, a record-breaking swimmer…the list goes on and on. But perhaps her most resounding triumph was her invention of a practical and freeing one-piece bathing costume for women! Kellerman was born in Marrickville, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, in 1886. From birth, she had very weak legs and even had to wear braces to help her walk when she was a child. Her parents brought her to a community pool in an attempt to strengthen her leg muscles, and soon it was clear that she was meant to be there! While still in school, Kellerman performed at numerous swimming and diving exhibitions, including swimming with fish at an aquarium. She soon held many female world records, such as 33 minutes and 49 seconds for the mile swim in 1902. In 1905, Kellerman became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel.
However, during this period of time, modesty was of the utmost importance. In fact, Sydney had a law against daylight bathing that wasn’t repealed until 1903! Swimsuits for women looked more like sack-like, flesh-covering dresses than a streamlined way to enter the water. When Kellerman fashioned a bare-armed, bare-legged, skin-tight bathing suit in 1907, you can imagine the reactions that she received! When she traveled to the United States the same year, she was arrested on a beach in Massachusetts. She had manufactured these suits herself (they were called Kellermans) and then sold them to the public. Despite the controversy that arose from her new aquatic trend, Annette Kellerman invoked a new excitement for swimming, not just for women, but for men and children as well. She liberated the public to swim in practical suits instead of inefficient dresses and jumpers. Kellerman made such a tendentious move that it bent the long-standing Victorian rules for everyone. The suits were also an important step in the fashion world, opening up a whole new market of swim attire.
I admire Annette Kellerman’s bold move in the world of swimming, and we should thank her the next time that we wear our streamlined, functional bathing suits to the pool!