Swimsuits (4), used by Annette Kellerman, 1950s
These costumes have significance because they were used by Annette Kellerman, the creator of the women's one-piece swimsuit, who became an international celebrity as an endurance swimmer, a major star of the vaudeville stage and a Hollywood movie actress.
Born at Darlinghurst in Sydney, Annette Kellerman (1886-1975) took up swimming at the age of six to strengthen her weak legs. To improve her family's finances, she turned to professional competitive swimming and became a champion, setting a New South Wales record for the 100 yards, and a world record for the mile. She developed a form of aquatic entertainment that combined exhibitions of diving, swimming and ballet, and performed underwater feats like eating a banana while swimming among real fish.
In 1905 Annette and her father travelled to England where she made headlines by swimming 26 miles of 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 attempted (and failed three times) to swim the English Channel.
Kellerman was accustomed to wearing an Australian men's racing swimsuit, which revealed half her thighs. This was forbidden when she was invited to give an exhibition of swimming and diving before members of the Royal Family at London's Bath Club, so she devised a one-piece black swimsuit, buying a long pair of black stockings and sewing them onto a men's racing suit, effectively creating a unitard.
Kellerman retired from racing and developed an aquatic ballet act for the vaudeville stage, appearing at the London Hippodrome. Her one-piece swim suit and her epic swims attracted the attention of theatre managers in the United States. She went to America in 1907 and performed at Chicago, Boston and New York. She diversified her act to include a spectacular diving and underwater performance in a glass tank, plus wire-walking, ballet dancing, acrobatics, singing, a physical culture comedy number and humorous male impersonations.
In Boston she was arrested for wearing an Australian-style men's swimsuit that revealed half her thighs, generating worldwide publicity. The judge dismissed the case, accepting her arguments in favour of swimming and health and against restrictive, cumbersome swimming costumes. He allowed her to wear her bathing suit as long as she wore a robe until she entered the water. At this time women bathers normally wore shoes, stockings, bloomers, skirts, overdresses with puffed sleeves, sailor collars, even tight-fitting corsets. Kellerman contested the restrictions placed on female bathers and challenged the accepted standards of decency. She designed the first modern bathing suit for women by inventing the 'modesty panel' by placing a tight-fitting skirt which came to just above the knees over her existing swimsuit. By the mid 1920s her style of costume had become commercially available. She continued to wear her trademark one-piece swimsuit for both public swimming and stage acts, attracting a great deal of publicity especially in the United States.
Dubbed the 'Australian Mermaid' and 'Diving Venus', Kellerman had a long career as a vaudeville headliner and played in the theatres of Europe and the United States. A friend of Pavlova, she appeared on stage with Chaplin, Jolson, Caruso and Houdini. She trained a female chorus to accompany her on stage.
Kellerman was the first Australian woman to star in a Hollywood movie, 'Jepthah's Daughter' (1909). She also starred in the successful films 'Neptune's Daughter' (Universal, 1914) and 'A Daughter of the Gods' (Fox, 1916). With its scandalous nude scenes, 'Neptune's Daughter' grossed $1 million at the box office. She starred in several other films. In 1952 Esther Williams played Annette Kellerman in the Hollywood film bio 'Million Dollar Mermaid'.
Seeing herself as a health crusader and entertainer, she wrote two books encouraging women to exercise, 'How to Swim' (1918) and 'Physical Beauty and How to Keep It' (1919). A vegetarian, she lectured on health and fitness throughout Europe and America. She was judged as 'the perfect woman' by a Harvard University professor, Dr Sargent.
Kellerman made a big impression during her vaudeville tour of Australia in 1921-22. Just before World War II she and her husband settled for a period on the Barrier Reef in Queensland. She worked voluntarily for the American Red Cross during the war, performing for the troops in the South Pacific. She returned to Australia permanently in 1970, living on the Gold Coast until her death in 1975.
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.
Transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library, Sydney Opera House, to the Powerhouse Museum in 1983.