The “Million Dollar Mermaid” Revolutionizes Women’s Swimwear

An Australian woman, Annette Kellerman, sparked the first major revolution in women’s swimwear in America. In some ways, the modern swimsuit—and her future stardom—grew from her early failure.

Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman, posing for a publicity photo in a union suit, in her native Australia, ca. 1905.
Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman, posing for a publicity photo in a swimsuit in her native Australia, ca. 1905. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, at age nineteen, already a national swim champion, Kellerman captured worldwide attention when she attempted to swim the English Channel. At the time, the public followed open water swimming as faithfully as many Americans follow baseball and football today. The English Channel swim stood as grueling test of physical and mental endurance. Most believed that only elite male athletes could withstand its freezing waters, swift tides, forceful currents, and unpredictable squalls. While many athletes had tried to swim from England to France, at that point, only one man, Matthew Webb, had completed the swim. It took him nearly 22 hours.

No one believed a woman could swim the English Channel. And Kellerman didn’t swim the distance.

Typical bathing suits for a family at the beach, ca.1910. Courtesy of Kym Pichon, personal collection.
Typical bathing suits for a family at the beach, ca.1910. Courtesy of Kym Pichon, personal collection.

But her ability to endure the bitterly cold saltwater for over nine hours, along with an entrepreneurial spirit, “plucky” attitude, and bold swimsuit, created a media sensation that forever changed swimsuits for women.

In the early 1900s, social custom in the US and England required women to wear dark, layered swimsuits with full, long skirts, tights, and shoes on the beach. Men, too, were expected to wear shirts over their trunks.

Following custom in Australia, Kellerman swam in a dark one-piece swimsuit that exposed her thighs. After her second Channel-swimming attempt in 1905, a royal English audience asked to meet the fearless swimmer. Preparing her for the meeting, officials asked Kellerman to wear her swimsuit but they instructed her to cover her legs, to heed English propriety. Instead of donning the customary long skirt, Kellerman ingeniously sewed the tops of black silk tights around the leg openings of her Australian swimsuit. The seam joining the union suit to the tights is visible at Kellerman’s mid-thigh.

Annette Kellerman posing in the swimsuit she invented, 1919. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Rights status not evaluated.

Her action mollified conservatives and generated a media buzz. Vaudeville theater owners in New York and Boston contracted her to do a swimming and diving performance. Kellerman transformed into a celebrity and the homemade one-piece bathing suit became her trademark. She wore the sleek black bodysuit, which the media christened the “Kellerman,” in all of her performances.

Many early vaudeville acts catered primarily to a male audience and contained burlesque overtones. Men flocked to watch the curvaceous Kellerman–tightly sheathed in silk–demonstrate a dive or swimming stroke in a large water-filled tank onstage. Her manager placed mirrors around the tank so viewers could behold her from every angle. An astute woman, Kellerman knew that her swimsuit and act titillated male viewers.

Australian swim champion, Annette Kellerman, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
Australian swim champion, Annette Kellerman, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

But she understood that acceptance of her swimsuit–and essentially her career–hinged on endorsement by women with middle-class sensibilities. She legitimized her outfit. By demonstrating diving and swimming techniques, she kept her act educational, justifying her one-piece swimsuit as a uniform for a professional athlete.

Kellerman also promoted swimming—and the need for a proper swimsuit—as a public health issue.  In the early 20th century, thousands of accidental drowning deaths occurred in the US annually. Most fatalities involved women and children. The heavy woolen bathing suits women were expected to wear hampered movement greatly. Kellerman explained that her tight streamlined suit enhanced mobility in the water. Its lighter weight and lack of voluminous skirts decreased women’s risk of drowning. Even the most socially conservative could not against argue those pragmatic truths.

Kellerman displayed an entrepreneurial instinct and promoted swimming as a means of enhancing feminine beauty.

Ad for Kellerman's health and beauty book, The Body Beautiful," 1911.
Ad for Kellerman’s health and beauty book, The Body Beautiful,” 1911.

 

Ad for the silent film, Neptune's Daughter, showing Kellerman's measurements. Fitness experts of the time labeled Kellerman as "the perfect woman."
Poster for the silent film, Neptune’s Daughter, showing Kellerman’s measurements and proclaiming her “the perfect woman.”

Capitalizing on her expertise as a swimmer and popularity in theater and silent film, she authored a syndicated newspaper column, “How To Be Beautiful,” that praised swimming as a beautifying exercise for women.

By linking swimming with women’s health and beauty, Kellerman legitimized both the streamlined bathing suit and swimming as an appropriate exercise for women. She had attracted attention of physical fitness experts, like Harvard’s Dudley Sargent, who applauded her physique, labeling her “the Perfect Woman.”

Her reputation encouraged women to learn to swim and they eagerly sought Kellerman suits. Responding to the increasing demand for the one-piece swimsuits, other manufacturers began producing Kellerman knockoffs. Soon women could purchase the sleek bodysuit in department stores across America. Previously, they had to knit or sew their own swimsuits.

Today, history remembers Kellerman as a silent film star–a celebrity athlete who turned a career in sports into a lucrative acting career in Hollywood. Her life inspired the 1952 hit movie, Million Dollar Mermaid.

The Kellerman one-piece suit revolutionized women’s swimwear, but it still covered women’s legs. When did the legless swimsuit evolve? As open water swimming became a popular pastime and widely followed sport, women began swimming competitively and breaking swim records previously set by men. Women in the US swam their way to international fame in the 1910s and 1920s. The success of the modern one-piece swimsuit is tied to their stories.