I love nearly everything about summer except for my allergies. As someone who was told to “build a bubble because, honey, you are allergic to the world” by the PA at the allergist’s office, the season of the great outdoors is unkind to me, especially when it comes to swimming. We are incredibly lucky to have a beautiful pool in our backyard, however, it is surrounded by some lovely plants that continually try to wage war with my eyes and sinuses and make it so that I can neither see nor breath, two kind of crucial things to be able to swim. However, I can’t complain because at least I don’t have a corset or belt or stockings or an uncomfortable skirt weighing me down while I swim as women were forced to over a century ago. And, between sneezes, I can thank Annette Kellerman and her groundbreaking design for the women’s one piece for that.
Actually, compared to Annette Kellerman I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Not only did she have to swim in treacherous, bulky undergarments, she had to wear braces on her legs as a child because of considerable weakness due to rickets, polio, a calcium deficiency, or, as one suspect doctor put it, because she had been allowed to walk too early. I’m no expert but it seems to me that when you are able to walk, you walk. But then again, I don’t know how things worked in the suburbs of Sydney Australia in the 1880s.
Her parents, both musicians, looked for a cure to help their daughter rid herself of the painful and embarrassing leg braces. Her father found a doctor that strongly suggested swimming as a therapy method to help strength Annette’s legs.
Annette was skeptical for a couple reasons. The first was that she didn’t want to expose how visibly underdeveloped her legs were. The second had to do with the fact that swimming was not the same universal sport or recreation that it is today. In many parts of the world, the only reason to go into the water was to bathe, making accessible swimming pools rare and odd.
Despite her begging, her parents insisted that swimming would help her and they took her and her brothers to the bath of a family of International Hall of Fame swimmers. It took her around 20 times to fully get the hang of swimming but she felt “intense joy” at her ability to move around freely in the water without her braces. By age 13, the muscles in her legs had finally strengthened to what would be considered a normal amount. She still continued to swim, however, because she loved it so much.
When she was 15, she set out to add some newer and refined swimming strokes to the breaststroke that she had learned in the beginning. Her natural competence in each built her confidence and interested her in the idea of swimming competitively. It wasn’t until she ended up winning her first local race that her father put aside his doubts about the sport for her daughter’s career choice and became her coach and trainer.
In 1902, she won a 100-yard championship and set a world record for swimming the fastest mile. Pretty soon, she started adding in long-distance races and diving demonstrations. In addition, she began performing in mermaid shows in aquariums. Despite all of her many accomplishments, she wasn’t making much money and decided to move to England to seek out higher-paying competitions. To get her name out there, her father suggested she swim down the Thames River, a 26-mile endeavor that involved swallowing mouthfuls of oil and avoiding garbage and boats along the way. The swim itself garnered a lot of attention, marking the first time a woman made the swim. A sports editor from the Daily Mirror offered to pay Annette to swim across the English Channel as long as he could write and photograph her training during swims along the coast.
She quickly got to work, gradually working up to the 24-mile swim week by week. Though she had already successfully swum the 26 miles in the Thames, the cold, choppy waves of the English Channel would prove more difficult.
Her first attempt at the crossing was on August 24, 1905, and began at 3 a.m. Six men also attempted the crossing as well and each swimmer was followed by a steam tug that would feed hot chocolate or snacks to the swimmers as they needed more energy. The chocolate Annette had been given by an advertiser made her quite seasick and made the difficult swim nearly unbearable. She was forced to stop after six and a half hours swimming. However, she earned thirty pounds and also became the first woman to attempt to cross the Channel. After two more tries, she still could not cross, only making it about three-quarters of the way. She believed that she had the endurance to cross but not the raw strength. She also was not able to perform as well as her male counterparts because, unlike her, they were allowed to swim nude. She was forced to wear a swimsuit that painfully chafed her skin.
Because the sport of swimming was not highly known or respected, especially if you were a woman, there was little consideration given to the attire worn during competition. A basic men’s swimming suit was relatively common and involved a t-shirt/short combination. However, for women, rarely seen as athletes, only were provided with bathing suits. These were basically dresses that fell around the knee and puffy short sleeves. Many women were encouraged to wear underwear and corsets underneath and completed the look with stockings and bathing boots.
Annette’s response to these kinds of suits was that “there is no more reason why you should wear those awful overcoats, those awkward, lumpy ‘bathing suits’ than there is wearing lead chains. Heavy bathing suits have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps. I am certain there isn’t a single reason under the sun why everybody should not wear lightweight suits. Anyone who persuades you to wear the heavy skirty kind is endangering your life.”
So for female swimmers who wanted to compete, there was not only no way for them to succeed in these suits but they were also taking their lives into their hands. Women were, technically, able to wear a men’s bathing suit, however, they were not allowed to be seen wearing it in public. So…there was kind of no winning for women.
Annette wore men’s suits anyway, figuring breaking the law was better than losing her life. However, for one particular performance at the London’s bath club for the Royal Family, her suit was considered too inappropriate. She still wanted to swim so she sewed black stockings to the legs of the shorts of the suit.
This was effectively the first women’s swimming suit and Annette continued to redesign the concept after the performance, creating certain styles that only covered the shoulders and legs that stopped either at stocking or thigh length, and went on to launch her own line of women’s swimwear. How scandalous. At some beaches around the world, Kellerman suits were banned. In fact, Annette was arrested while wearing one of these suits for indecency on Revere Beach, MA in 1907.
What Annette and her suits were able to do was legitimize women who wished to swim. As her suits became more and more acceptable, more women were able to feel comfortable swimming. In addition, Annette became an active advocate for women to get in the water saying “I am not trying to shut men out of swimming; there is enough water it the world for all of us but as men can indulge in so many sports where women can make a poor showing or cannot compete at all, swimming may well be called the women’s sport.”
Not only was Annette a pioneer in sports and fashion, but she found her way into film and vaudeville after she grew tired of winning race after race. Moving to the United States, she began to tour theaters and amusement parks with an original act that included swimming, water stunts, high diving and mermaid shows. She added ballet to the shows, creating the prototype of synchronized swimming. One production involved 200 mermaids swimming in tandem. For each of her acts, she designed and made all the costumes.
She also experimented with tightrope walking and male impersonation, appearing as a monocled man named English Johnny. Her talent and personality led to her becoming one of the highest paid performers in vaudeville. Her vaudeville act was so popular that many others began to copy it. When her pay began to decline, she turned to film, beginning with a series of silent shorts. Around this time, she also proposed to her manager Louis Sullivan.
In 1914, she starred in her first full-length movie, “Neptune’s Daughter,” in which she played a mermaid. She made both history and headlines in 1916 when she appeared nude in a scene in “Daughter of the Dogs,” marking one of the first of such appearances by a star in a nonpornographic movie. In 1924, she starred in her last film “Venus of the South Seas.”
After her film retirement, Annette made the next logical move to…health food stores. She also published books on fitness and encouraged women to take care of their bodies. One controversial book was called “Physical Beauty and How to Keep It,” which did argue the health benefits of active lives but also promised the added benefit of a perfect figure to attract the perfect husband. While this is obviously problematic, it seems that Annette’s career became increasingly about her body with people taking little else about her seriously. In fact, in 1909, when a Harvard doctor compared the measurements of a thousand women to the Venus de Milo statue, Annette’s were the closest. Additionally, headlines such as “Annette Kellerman Still Draws Crowd, Legs of Diving Venus Hold Former Beauty” from 1937 were relatively common.
Annette and Louis returned to Australia a few times during World War II to entertain troops in the South Pacific. In 1952, a film about her came out called “Million Dollar Mermaid.” Annette disliked the film and called it “a silly little yarn.” She was upset that Ester Williams, who played her, was American and that the film focused more on swimming than on her life. She was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1974 one year before her death in 1975.
Ironically, Annette was not a fan of the bikini, believing that it was too revealing and insisting that nobody had the figure to pull it off. However, without her, I doubt the bikini would have become acceptable as quickly as it did and, additionally, I doubt women would have been as encouraged to actually swim at all. So, I’ll take mild discomfort from allergies over accidental drowning or heatstroke from those awful contraptions that Annette did away with.