Kellermann Swimsuits shunned pantaloons at a time when women’s bathing costumes included a dress over bloomers, shoes and a hat. Champion swimmer and performer, Annette Kellermann shattered social norms.
An evangelist for serious swimming as the key to lifelong health and beauty, she wore the typical men’s two-piece costume with a tee shirt and fitted shorts to the knee, give or take a few inches. Eventually she streamlined that to her famous one-piece Kellermann swimsuits.
Kellermann Championed Women’s Right To Bare Arms And Legs
According to curator Peter Cox of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) 2016 Million Dollar Mermaid exhibition, Kellermann did not invent the one-piece swimsuit, but she was instrumental in finessing its shape and escalating its popularity.
“She adapted existing garments to suit her needs. Even before she left Australia at the age of 18, she had defied conventions of feminine modesty and gender boundaries by wearing a skirtless, men’s racing suit.”
In 1903 even this costume was radical for a woman to wear because it revealed thighs and was cut low under the arms. When Kellermann performed for the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in England, she was told that her costume was too revealing.
On the fly, she created the prototype of her Kellermann swimsuits by sewing stockings to her one-piece men’s racing suit. It covered her flesh, thus satisfying the request. But it revealed what came to be considered her perfect figure. And she was able to perform her water ballet and dive routine without a cumbersome bathing costume.
Kellermann Swimsuits became a robust part of her trailblazing entrepreneurial pursuits.
Evangelist For Swimming To Lifelong Health and Beauty
Annette Kellermann was an evangelist for the power of swimming to build good health and beauty. She was the crippled child who, thanks to swimming, grew into what would be called, the perfect female form. She attributed her personal health and success to swimming.
At a time when many people believed women should not engage in any activities that built muscle, Kellermann advocated the opposite in her 1918 book Physical Beauty: How to Keep It. Her 1918 book How to Swim includes chapters on: Muscular Development and the Ideal form, Muscular Activity As The Source of Grace, Swimming As A Woman’s Sport, and The Muscular Corset.
In both books Kellermann stressed the importance of appropriately streamlined swim costumes for safety and proper swimming form.
“…water is seven hundred times as heavy as air, and to attempt to drag loose flowing cloth garments of any sort through water is like having the Biblical mill-stone around one’s neck.“
She wrote that swimming garments should be placed in two distinct classes. One was bathing beach dress and the other was a true swimming costume.
“Much of the summer social life of the seaside resorts consists in lounging about the beach with occasional splashing in the water. For this purpose, which is social rather than natatorial, it may be all very well to conform to the fashions of the beach and wear a dashing petticoat with slippers, cap and cape to match.
But where swimming is engaged in as a genuine sport and not as a mere excuse for social diversion the very best society permits and approves of the close fitting swimming tights, or of the two-piece suits commonly worn by men.” (How To Swim, p. 46)
Kellerman suggested that if one-piece tights are not accepted on your beach, then you should wear the lightest garment possible with loose sleeves.
“Never have a tight waistband. It is a hindrance. Also on beaches where stockings are enforced your one-piece undergarment should have feet, so that the separate stocking and its attendant garter is abolished.”
“There is no more reason why you should wear those awful water overcoats—those awkward, unnecessary, lumpy “bathing suits,” than there is that you should wear lead chains. Heavy bathing suits have caused more deaths by drowning than cramps. I am certain that there isn’t a single reason under the sun why everybody should not wear light-weight suits.” (HTS, p. 48)
He views were miles ahead of the days when women were required to hide in bathing machines to change into voluminous costumes so they could dip into the water.
Fact v. Fiction: Was She Arrested For Wearing Her One-Piece Suit?
It has become part of Kellerman mythology that around 1907, while wearing a one-piece swimsuit on Boston’s Revere Beach, she was allegedly arrested for indecent exposure. A judge who was sympathetic to her arguments cleared her as long as she promised to wear a robe to the water line.
Peter Cox (MAAS) writes:
“The arrest is supposed to have created headlines in the USA. Annette first told this story in the 1930s and described it in the short, unpublished memoir she wrote in the early 1950s. However the incident remains unconfirmed by any documentary evidence, contemporary newspaper accounts or court records.”
Whether the incident was true or fabricated for publicity, Kellermann Swimsuits were considered so wildly rebellious on some beaches that they lead to arrests. It would be nearly a decade before they smaller suits were widely accepted.
Fact: Kellerman Swimsuits Freed Women To Become Champions
Harper’s Bazaar praised the Kellerman swimsuit, writing in June 1920 (vol. 55, no. 6, p. 138) “Annette Kellerman Bathing Attire is distinguished by an incomparable, daring beauty of fit that always remains refined.”
In the 1912 Olympics, serious female swimmers from 17 countries competed. Women from nine countries wore swimsuits based on Kellermann’s design.
Jantzen Swimwear, established in 1916, brought the one-piece to a new commercial level that further pushed hemlines higher and swimsuits smaller. They were advertised as “bathing suits” until 1920. In 1921, Jantzen adopted the name “swimsuit” again pushing the health, sport and art of swimming into the mainstream.
Freedom Came With A Price
Annette Kellermann devoted her life to swimming for health and beauty. That work included her push for the right for women to wear practical swimsuits. Swimmers were not the only female athletes being held back by outrageous constraints of their costumes. Female cyclists still braved scorn if they dared wear pantaloons. Victorian Strong womenalong with other female circus performers often earned good livings, but they continually struggled for respect. And women in competitive sports including tennis pros were pushing for the acceptance of sensible clothing. Even female mountain climbers were expected to wear long petticoats and heavy skirts.
Flash forward to 2021 Olympics. Women on the Norwegian handball team were fined for wearing shorts instead of the tiny bikinis mandated by the European Handball Federation (EHF). The Disciplinary Committee fined the women ($1,768), or 150 euros per player for wearing “improper clothing.”
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