Swimsuits (4), used by Annette Kellerman, 1950s
These swimsuits are part of a collection of clothing worn by Annette Kellerman (1886-1975). She became an international celebrity as an endurance swimmer, an entertainer of the vaudeville stage and a star of American silent films. She played a key role in popularising the one-piece swimsuit for women. Although the Museum has a large collection of Kellerman's performance costumes, she wore these swimsuits after retiring from the stage.
Born in Sydney, Kellerman took up swimming as a child to strengthen her semi-crippled legs. She became a champion, setting a New South Wales record for the 100 yards and a world record for the mile.
In 1905 she travelled to England where she made headlines by swimming over 13 miles down the River Thames. She swam the River Seine in a race, coming equal third against 17 men, and won a 22 mile race down the Danube. She almost succeeded in swimming the English Channel.
It would have been impossible to make these long-distance swims in the stuffy garments that female bathers were expected to wear. Kellerman preferred a skirtless men's racing swimsuit which revealed half her thighs. Defying convention, she was responsible more than any other person for the gradual acceptance of the one-piece bathing suit.
Kellerman retired from racing and turned to the stage, developing a spectacular form of entertainment that combined diving into a glass tank, swimming and graceful underwater ballet.
She moved to the United States in 1906 and within a remarkably short time became one of the most highly paid stars in vaudeville. Dubbed 'The Australian Mermaid' and 'The Diving Venus', she had a genius for publicity and self-promotion. However the story that she got herself arrested at Boston's Revere Beach for wearing a one-piece bathing suit is not supported by evidence.
She augmented her stage act to include wire-walking, ballet dancing, acrobatics, diabolo, singing, physical culture, male impersonation and the elaborate staging of tanks, waterfalls and slides. She trained a large chorus of 'Kellerman girls' to accompany her in a form of choreographed water ballet, a forerunner to the modern sport of synchronised swimming.
The first Australian woman to star in American movies, she played a daring mermaid action hero in several feature films with fairy tale storylines. With its extensive underwater scenes, 'Neptune's Daughter' (Universal, 1914) was a box office success. She showed her dancing and acting skills in the lost film 'A Daughter of the Gods' (Fox, 1916), the first US production with a million dollar budget. Esther Williams portrayed Annette Kellerman in a 1952 Hollywood biopic, MGM's water spectacular 'Million Dollar Mermaid'.
As an entrepreneur, Kellerman lent her name to various styles of one-piece swimsuit. She published books instructing women on beauty and physical fitness, and lectured on health and exercise. She was judged as 'the perfect woman' by Dr Dudley Sargent of Harvard University. Her 'ideal' physique personified a new aesthetic of natural female beauty, one that valued athleticism and unadorned bodily display. In this way she was a trailblazer for the modern woman.
Kellerman was active in Australia during World War II, writing, producing and performing in fundraising shows for the Red Cross. Later she returned to live her final years on the Gold Coast.
Annette Kellerman kept a large collection of theatrical and aquatic memorabilia from her long career. In 1975, while living in retirement on the Gold Coast, she saw a segment on ABC-TV's 'This Day Tonight' about the recently created performing arts archive at the Sydney Opera House. Having learnt to swim at Cavill's Baths in Farm Cove, near where the Opera House now stands, she decided this was the appropriate repository for her collection. She asked her sister Marcelle to ring the Opera House to make an offer of donation. Marcelle spoke to Barbara Firth, a member of the Ladies Committee of the Sydney Opera House Appeal Fund and an honorary coordinator of the performing arts archive. Frank Barnes, the Opera House's general manager, agreed that the opportunity to acquire the collection should not be missed. In September 1975 Barbara Firth spent five days on the Gold Coast with Annette Kellerman and took possession of the entire collection on behalf of the Opera House. A furniture van was needed to transport the seven large cabin trunks that held the large collection. Within weeks Kellerman had passed away, on 6 November 1975.
In 1983 staff at the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House assessed the collection and noticed that some garments were from Kellerman's personal wardrobe rather than performance costumes. These 'street clothes' were offered to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum), whose Curator of Costume and Textiles made a careful selection of ten outfits, four swimsuits and a handful of accessories, including this garment. The transfer was made in mid-1983.