On the 3rd of March in 1876 a Sydney Illustrated News article titled “Swimming made easy for women” suggests that the first step in swimming is to “Wet the head thoroughly to prevent headache”. Further, it reports that “sea water seldom injures the hair” and you should make sure that your bathing suit has “a long-sleeved jacket and drawers cut in one piece with a belt with plenty of room across the chest and shoulders, plus 4 inches extra around the waist”.
These unpractical “bathing suits” focused on modesty. Swimming suits for women didn’t really start until around 1906 when along came the amazing Annette Kellermann. Born in 1886 to an Australian violinist and French pianist, she had Rickets disease as a child causing her to wear metal leg supports until at the age of 7 when she took up swimming at the local sea baths to help build her fitness.
Annette became a local from Cavill’s Baths in Lavender Bay, North Sydney. The water became her strength and her freedom, she knew no bounds and soon took her talents global.
In 1902, Kellermann won the ladies’ 100 yards in 1:22 and the mile championships of New South Wales in 33:49. Kellermann then moved to Melbourne with her family and gave swimming and diving exhibitions at Melbourne Baths.
Kellermann not only wore and advocated for the one-piece bathing suit, but she also created her own line of women’s swimwear. The practical one-piece meant that women could compete in swimming. Annette said, “Women can beat men in Marathon swimming”.
In 1905 at age 19 she attempted her first attempt at the English channel swim. In her 3 attempts at the English Channel crossing, she was unsuccessful, no women had yet succeeded. She did a marathon swim down the Thames River in London, came 3rd in a men’s 7-mile race down the river Seine in Paris and beat fellow marathon swimmer Walburga von Isacescu in the Danube River race.
Swimming was one avenue and entertainment was another. She mixed swimming with vaudeville-style entertainment, performing all over England and then later the USA, eventually moving into movies to become the lead star in “The Mermaid“, “A Daughter of the Gods” and “Queen of the Sea“. She performed her own stunts, like diving 28 meters into the sea or 18 meters into a pool of crocodiles!
A movie was made about Annette Kellermann in 1952 called Million Dollar Mermaid. A documentary about her was released in 2002 called “The Original Mermaid“, (available on Binge). You can read more about the fantastic life of “Australia’s Perfect Women” on Wikipedia here or about the evolution of women’s swim costumes here. Annette Kellermann is a hero of swimming, as highlighted in another great article about her by theguardian.com here.
Marrickville in Sydney still honours her with the so-named Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre. You must swim there or at least muse over a coffee at the Kellerman cafe, for Annette made swimming easy and inspired generations.
By John E Scanlon