Costume, sleeveless black dance outfit, cotton, used by Annette Kellerman, [United States of America], 1920-1950
This costume 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. As creator of the women's one-piece swimsuit, Kellerman 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'.
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 (91.4 metres), and a world record for the mile (1.6 kilometers).
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. She later 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.
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.
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.
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'.
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 costumes is from a substantial collection of Kellerman's costumes, props and memorabilia that forms part of the Powerhouse Museum's holdings of heritage objects relating to the performing arts.
This dance outfit was used by Annette Kellerman during her stage career between 1920-1950.
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.