Annette Kellerman brand one piece swimming tights and silk overdress

Contributed by: Australian National Maritime Museum

Front view of swimming tights Back view of swimming tights Detail of tights label Front view of silk overdress Back view of silk overdress Detail of dress' trim (tied into a bow) More detail of placket and trim Inside view of dress' placket and waistline Chipped fastening button on swimming tights Uneven shirring and weaknesses at neck of silk overdress Frayed and open side seams Swimming tights label Alterations to tights' legs Alterations to tights' legs Altered silk overdress placket Internally reinforced dress seams Woman, possibly Annette Kellerman, being arrested for indecency. Image courtesy of the Austral International Press Agency. Alice Docker wearing a one-piece swimsuit, as popularised by Annette Kellerman. Image courtesy of Einar Docker.
  • Australian dress register ID:

    501
  • Owner:

    Australian National Maritime Museum
  • Owner registration number:

    00045978-00045979
  • Date range:

    1910 - 1920
  • Place of origin:

    USA
  • Gender:

    Female
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Object information

Significance statement

These black Annette Kellerman brand one piece swimming tights and silk overdress are significant because they are representative of the transition from restrictive to modern swimwear. The overdress still features a skirt to preserve modesty in public when out of the water, but the design allows for much greater freedom of movement than previous styles. Well into the 1890s, women were sewing weights into the hems of their smock-like bathing gowns to prevent the garment from floating up and revealing their legs, however the early 1900s saw a new breed of women wanting to be modest and glamourous, but active. This prompted the creation and mass production of practical swimwear for women, to be used by casual bathers and sportswomen alike. 

This swim set is based on the archetypal design worn and championed by Annette Kellerman(n). Kellerman is pivotal to the changing style of swimsuit worn by women due to her appearance at Revere Beach, Boston in a man's unitard, and also was a promoter of active glamour and physical fitness, which previously was not made of paramount concern to women. While it is unprovenanced, it is a rare complete example of aesthetic and social history. 

It was not until the mid 1800s that swimming at the seaside was considered to be a form of relaxation and enjoyment. And, what with the rise of swimming celebrities such as Kellerman, it was not long before the swimsuit became a fashion and freedom barometer of the times, as it is today. 

Author: Eloise Maree Crossman, 13.11.2013.

Description

Annette Kellerman (spelled Kellermann on label) brand one piece swimming tights and silk overdress.

Swimming tights are black, sleeveless with a single button fastening on the shoulder and of a boy-leg cut. The leg length is just above the knee.

An "Asbury Mills, USA" tag is sewn inside the neck, and features a motif of a swimming woman with text (see Manufacture for more detail).

These swimming tights would have been worn with their matching black silk overdress, also sleeveless and with a pleated modesty skirt. The overdress has black and white striped silk trim around the neckline, arm holes and waist, two lengths of trim at the neck that are intended to be tied into a bow as well as an ornamental placket on the front bodice. 

History and Provenance

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

These swimming tights are based on the design worn and championed by Annette Kellerman for use by women in the early 1900s. 

In 1907, Kellerman made a controversial appearance on Revere Beach, Boston, wearing a man's one-piece unitard swimsuit with her legs uncovered, for which she was arrested (this unitard resembles modest female fashion by today's standards). This was the mechanism for a shift in public opinion as to what was considered acceptable for women to wear when bathing and swimming in public, and saw the replacement of cumbersome bathing dresses with styles allowing greater freedom of movement in the water, closer resembling modern swimming costumes. 

Though at first this style was considered 'risqué' and even somewhat pornographic, especially in Europe and America, it gained popularity in due course, perhaps helped by Kellerman's celebrity and athletic status.  

Where did this information come from?

ANMM object record 

Colmer, Michael. Bathing Beauties: The Amazing History of Female Swimwear. London: Sphere, 1977.

Horwood, Catherine. “Girls Who Arouse Dangerous Passions: Women and Bathing, 1900-39.” Women's History Review 9, no. 4 (2000).

Kennedy, Sarah. The Swimsuit. London: Carlton, 2007.

LenĨek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Splash!: A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. 

This garment has been exhibited

Previously on display in the ANMM exhibition 'Exposed! The Story of Swimwear' from November 2009 to February 2011. 

  1. Place of origin:

    USA

  2. Owned by:

    In the Australian National Maritime Museum collection, acquired from Betty Olson.

  3. Occasion(s):

    Swimming 

  4. Designed by:

    Possibly (co?)designed by Annette Kellerman

  5. Made by:

    Asbury Mills, USA

  6. Made for:

    Female swimmers

Trimmings / Decoration

The silk overdress is trimmed with black and white striped silk; two lengths of trim at the neck tie into a bow. This swimming costume is intended for practical use and so is not greatly decorative (though may be considered decorative by today's standards). 

Fibre / Weave

Swimming tights are black wool knit tights (wool swimsuits were the norm during the 1910s, 20s and 30s, even though woolen fabric clung to the body when wet and posed quite a challenge for swimmers, and many knitting mills took to manufacturing swimwear).

The overdress is made of black silk, with black and white striped silk trimming.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

Presumably machine knitted and sewn

Label

"Asbury Mills USA." tag sewn inside neck of swimming tights. Reads "The/ Annette Kellermann/ Swimming Tights/ Reg. U.S. Pat. Off. Asbury Mills". Annette Kellerman's name is in red cursive. 

Possibly designed in collaboration with Kellerman herself.

Alterations

There are signs of a placket on the silk overdress that may once have had buttons and have been buttonable (turning the dress inside-out, one can see remnants of buttonholes); it appears, however, that the placket was sewn shut after manufacture, presumably by the dress' owner. 

The motion of pulling the dress over one's chest would have caused stress to the dress' sideseams, which would explain why they are internally reinforced. 

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

Single presumably Bakelite or other synthetic resin button fastening on proper left shoulder of swimming tights, (reinforced with Velcro and zigzag stitching inside shoulder by ANMM conservators).

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

This swimming costume predates boned, corsetry-like swimsuits of the 1940s and 50s. 

Measurements

dress Swimsuit
Girth
Neck 370 mm 490 mm
Chest 930 mm 900 mm
Waist 910 mm 800 mm
Hip 930 mm
Cuff 330 mm
Hem circumference 1900 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 795 mm 755 mm
Front waist to hem 435 mm 475 mm
Back neck to hem 875 mm 840 mm
Back waist to hem 435 mm 475 mm
Inside leg 225 mm
Outside leg 355 mm
Horizontal
Neck to sleeve head 90 mm
Cross back 475 mm 345 mm
Underarm to underarm 545 mm 420 mm
Convert to inches

Swimming tights measurements taken unstretched, though due to wear garment may have stretched over time. 

Dress Themes

Swimwear, of a style that afforded women more freedom of movement in the water than previous styles. 

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman, born on the 6th of July, 1886 in Darlinghurst, Sydney, was a New South Wales swimming champion who left for England at age 18 to help her struggling family; this spring-boarded her career as a professional swimmer and celebrity. She competed as a long distance swimmer, attempted to swim the English Channel three times, and swam against men in the annual race along the Seine in 1907, coming equal third. 

By 1906 Kellerman had established herself as a performer through exotic swimming and diving demonstrations, and moved to vaudeville theatre in America as 'Australia's Mermaid' as well as film production. 

Kellerman wrote books such as Physical Beauty and How to Keep it (1918), How to Swim (1918), a book of children's stories titled Fairy Tales of the South Seas (1926) and My Story, an unpublished autobiography. She also wrote numerous mail order booklets on health, beauty and fitness.

Kellerman is often credited for inventing the sport of synchronised swimming after her 1907 performance of the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.

She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Other related objects

Supplied is a photograph of Alice Docker, champion swimmer of Coogee (known for Wylie's Baths and Coogee Palace Aquarium and Baths). Docker is wearing a one-piece swimsuit, as popularised by Annette Kellerman, her contemporary. 

This photograph was taken in approximately 1909, two years after Kellerman's arrest on Revere Beach, Boston. It is a stark contrast to the purported photograph of Kellerman's apprehension (whilst there is controversy over the identity of the woman in the photograph, the sentiment remains the same), evidencing an extraordinary transformation in societal attitudes towards female swimwear at the turn of the last century. 

Condition

Swimming tights are in good, slightly stretched but non-brittle condition, though should be handled with caution. Fastening button is chipped at its circumference. There is also one pin-sized hole at the back of the bodice. The gusset of the swimsuit is faded and has been hand-repaired at the front. The inside leg seams appear to have been intentionally separated 30mm on both the left and right legs, perhaps to make wider openings. 

Silk overdress is in fragile but fair to good condition and must be handled with extra caution. Whilst the silk is not terribly shattered there are points of weakness, particularly at the bodice, on the skirt, and near the trim (which is also fraying at the ends, and has been restitched with a machine for added strength). There is also weakness at the back of the neck and some hand repairs. The overdress' side seams are frayed and open, worst of all at the proper left side. 

It is probable that there was once a buttoned-up placket at the front of the silk overdress that has been stitched shut, resulting in the stress that is at the side seams of the garment. 

The ruching and shirring that is at the proper right shoulder is also coming undone. 

Evidence of repairs

Repairs to front of gusset of swimming tights 

Some hand repairs to silk overdress 

State

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor

Damage

  1. Fading
  2. Frayed
  3. Parts missing
  4. Stretched
  5. Worn

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