Swimsuit, black with red heart, fabric, used by Annette Kellerman, USA, 1940-1970
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, a major star of the vaudeville stage and a Hollywood movie actress. 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. 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 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 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 turned to the vaudeville stage, appearing at the London Hippodrome. She developed her graceful underwater ballet performances to include spectacular diving into a glass tank.
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. 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 adding to her existing swimsuit a 'modesty panel', a tight-fitting skirt which came to just above the knees. 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. She augmented her stage act to include wire-walking, ballet dancing, acrobatics, singing, a physical culture comedy number and humorous male impersonations, and trained a female chorus to accompany her on stage. A friend of Pavlova, she appeared on stage with Chaplin, Jolson, Caruso and Houdini.
Kellerman was the first Australian woman to star in a Hollywood movie, 'Neptune's Daughter' (Universal, 1914). With its extensive underwater scenes, this fairytale of a near-naked mermaid 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 Hollywood production with a million dollar budget. She starred in several other films. In 1952 Esther Williams played Annette Kellerman in a Hollywood film, the water spectacular titled '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 Dr Dudley Sargent of Harvard University.
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 swimsuit was used by Annette Kellerman between 1940-1970.
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 the late 1990s the objects in the Annette Kellerman collection were transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House, to the Powerhouse Museum. The collection's paper material, including photographs, was transferred to the State Library of New South Wales. Barbara Firth's biography of Kellerman, written with Emily Gibson and titled 'The Original Million Dollar Mermaid' was published by Allen & Unwin in 2005.