by Violet Gray
When the summer months roll around and the time comes to shop for a new bathing suit, we take several things into consideration. “Do I want a one or two piece bathing suit? How much does it cost? How will I look in it?” And while several factors go into deciding whether we should wear a bathing suit, we take for granted whether we can wear it. If you’ve never looked at a swimsuit and asked yourself, “could I be thrown in jail for wearing this” then you probably owe that to Annette Kellerman.
Born in Australia in 1887 to classical musicians, Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman suffered from rickets, a disease characterized by soft, weak bones that can bend under pressure. At age six she was walking with the aid of steel leg braces similar to those depicted in the movie Forrest Gump. Doctors suggested enrolling her in swimming courses and her parents did so, the aquatic equivalent of giving Serena Williams her first tennis racket.
Finding water much easier to navigate than land she dove headlong into her new hobby and by age 13 her legs showed no sign of weakness. By age 15 she’d won her first race. She didn’t know it at the time but she was on a path that would challenge what it meant to exist as a woman in public.
It would be no exaggeration to say that 1800’s swimwear for a woman closely resembled
gothic lolita cosplay. Full-on dresses, with high necklines, elbow length sleeves, voluminous tea-length skirts and bloomers underneath. It was heavy, and in some cases the hem was even weighted to prevent the skirt from flying up while in the water. So, possessed of the radical notion that swimming draped in yards and yards of wool was impractical Annette designed a new women’s swimsuit. It was very similar to men’s swimwear at the time; a skirtless, sleek and practical romper.
Its debut did not go as planned. Her intention was to be efficient rather than immodest, but the form-fitting nature of her attire made it obvious that there was in fact a woman under there. When she strode out to the waterside she drew a shocked and jeering crowd, was immediately arrested by police and charged with indecent exposure.
Annette won her case, arguing successfully as to the impracticality of women’s swimwear, and with that trial she gained a measure of freedom for herself as well as a place in history. Aquatically inclined women everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude, for without her forging a trial they might still be hitting the beach dressed like sexy Puritans.
While her impact on women’s attire is what she’s most known for, to focus on it exclusively would be to downplay the extent of her creativity and innovation. With her clear-tank swimming exhibitions, Annette Kellerman is widely considered to be the progenitor of synchronized swimming. When her athletic fame allowed her to transition over to film she broke barriers there as well, becoming the very first Hollywood actress to film a nude scene. She is the world’s first professional mermaid, having designed and created her own mermaid’s tail with which to perform both live shows and later onscreen. Later in life she became a prolific author as well, publishing several books on swimming, as well as articles on nutrition, fitness, beauty, and an anthology of children’s stories.
When six year old Annette Kellerman first dipped a toe into the water it was not her plan to become an activist. But in a world where simply being a woman can be an act of rebellion she had the courage stand up for herself and earn a place in history the way so many great women do; by demanding the freedom determine her own limits.