Handbill, film, Annette Kellerman, paper, Sydney Opera House, Australia, 1976-1980
This object is significant because it was owned and used by Annette Kellerman, the creator of the women's one-piece swimsuit, who became an international celebrity as an endurance swimmer, an entertainer of the vaudeville stage and a star of American silent films. It is from a substantial collection of Kellerman's costumes and props that forms part of the Powerhouse Museum's holdings of heritage objects relating to the performing arts.
Born at Darlinghurst in Sydney, Annette Kellerman (1886-1975) took up swimming at the age of six to strengthen her semi-crippled 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.
In 1904 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-style, skirtless 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 full-length 'figure suit', buying a long pair of black stockings and sewing them onto a black men's swimsuit.
Kellerman retired from racing and turned to the vaudeville stage, appearing at the London Hippodrome. She developed a spectacular form of entertainment that combined diving into a glass tank, swimming and graceful underwater ballet.
Her one-piece swimsuit 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. While preparing for a coastal swim to publicise performances at Boston's Wonderland, Kellerman was arrested on Revere Beach for wearing a one-piece bathing suit that clung to her body and exposed her thighs. The incident generated worldwide publicity. The judge dismissed the case, accepting her arguments in favour of exercise 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. Kellerman had successfully contested the restrictions placed on female bathers and challenged the accepted standards of decency. She continued to wear her trademark one-piece bathing suit for both public swimming and stage acts, attracting a great deal of publicity, especially in the United States. She also designed a modern bathing suit for women by adding to her existing swimsuit a 'modesty panel', a tight-fitting skirt which came to just above the knees.
Dubbed the 'Australian Mermaid' and 'Diving Venus', Kellerman had a long career in vaudeville and played in the theatres of Europe and the United States. She presented herself as a mythic persona, part-mermaid and part-Venus. She augmented her stage act to include wire-walking, ballet dancing, acrobatics, singing, physical culture and comedy. 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.
Kellerman was the first Australian woman to star in American movies. With its extensive underwater scenes, 'Neptune's Daughter' (Universal, 1914) was a fairytale of a near-naked mermaid that grossed over $1 million at the box office. She showed her dancing and acting skills in the lost film 'A Daughter of the Gods' (Fox, 1916). Filmed in Jamaica, it was the first US film production with a million dollar budget. She starred in several other films. In 1952 Esther Williams played Annette Kellerman in a Hollywood biopic, the water spectacular titled 'Million Dollar Mermaid'.
As creator of the women's one-piece swimsuit, she influenced public attitudes toward the female body. She published books instructing women on beauty and physical fitness, and lectured on health and exercise throughout Europe and America. She was judged as 'the perfect woman' by Dr Dudley Sargent of Harvard University. Her own '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 'new woman'.
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 Red Cross throughout the war, writing, producing and performing in shows to entertain the troops in the South Pacific. She returned to Australia permanently in 1970, living on the Gold Coast until her death in 1975.
This handbill was produced by the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, New south Wales, Australia. It advertises the public showing of scenes from a number of Annette Kellerman's films at the Sydney Opera House from 1976-1980.
This poster was produced after Kellerman's death to promote a film screening at the Sydney Opera House. It poster advertises the public showing of scenes from a number of Annette Kellerman's films at the Sydney Opera House from 1976-1980. it was acquired by the Dennis Wolanski Library at the Sydney Opera House. It was later transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library, Sydney Opera House, to the Powerhouse Museum.