Annette Kellerman costume

Contributed by: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Dress and skirt together, front view Dress and skirt together, back view Skirt only, front view Dress, neckline detail, front view Dress, front-view, decorative detail Dress, armhole detail and wear on fabrics Dress, centre-back fastening: fabric is warped, with patches of sequins missing Dress, inside detail: black cotton yoke is a later addition Skirt stain, wearer's left Skirt, centre-back fastening detail: stains and discolouration of press studs Photographic Portrait of Annette Kellerman - Powerhouse Museum collection (Object No. 2000/66/115) Mermaid tail and human hair wig used by Annette Kellerman sometime between 1906-1940 - Powerhouse Museum collection (Object No. 200/66/1 & 2000/66/4) Wool swimsuit used by Annette Kellerman 1902-1905 - Powerhouse Museum collection (Object No. 2000/66/2) Cotton swimsuit used by Annette Kellerman in the 1950s - Powerhouse Museum collection (Object No. A9180-3) Poster for Neptune's Daughter (1914) - available online at
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
  • Owner registration number:

    2000/66/23 and 2000/66/47
  • Date range:

    1914 - 1920
  • Place of origin:

    Possibly USA
  • Gender:

[Collapse all]

Object information

Significance statement

This two-piece costume belonged to the famous Australian, Annette Kellerman, whose childhood love of swimming not only saw her overcome Rickets, but become a world champion swimmer and famous star of stage and screen.

As a swimmer, Annette began setting new sprint and distance records when she was sixteen, and in 1905 she became the first woman to attempt the English Channel.

Her talent for diving and dancing (particularly ballet) became the basis of an underwater mermaid act which she first performed in Melbourne at the Prince's Court Art Centre, and the Exhibition Aquarium. This act then became the foundation of her vaudeville stage show, with which she toured the greatest theatres in America, Europe and Australia.

Annette also adapted her swimming and diving talent to the screen, starring in a number of movies with an aquatic theme. Her biggest film, Daughter of the Gods (1916) saw her become the first female lead in a million dollar film and the first woman to appear nude on film.

A strong advocate of women's physical health and the natural beauty of the female form eschewing restrictive corsetry, Annette published "Physical Beauty and How to Keep It" and "How to Swim" in 1918, and followed this with public lectures and a successful mail-order business which sold booklets on health and fitness. Annette also published a children's book "Fairy Tales of the South Seas" illustrated by her sister, Marcelle.

Annette's greatest achievement, in her own estimation, was the creation of the one-piece bathing suit for women. The publicity that followed Annette's arrest for indecent exposure in Boston brought the one-piece suit to the world's attention, a safer and more practical alternative to the heavy woollen Victorian era dress and pantaloons. 

As the one-piece suit became more socially accepted, women took to swimming and diving for both leisure and competition. Annette's combination of swimming, diving and ballet also popularised women's synchronised swimming.

This costume reflects Annette Kellerman's involvement in early 20th century stage and screen entertainment. Although fragile from age and use, the tulle and sequin combination is typical of Kellerman's stage and screen costumes, possibly because of their appearance when underwater. Several are now in the Powerhouse Museum's Kellerman collection.

Author: Peter Cox, revised by Melissa Tito., 01/05/2000, revised 06/07/2012..


Two-piece performance costume, owned and used by Annette Kellerman.

The dress is sleeveless, with a scoop-neck and an asymmetrical hem that is mid-thigh length at the front and knee-length at the back. The dress is made from a metallic fabric, with an overlay of green tulle to which iridescent round and tear-shaped sequins have been sewn; part of the back of the dress above the tulle skirt has been left undecorated. Four layers of varying lengths of green/teal tulle have been sewn onto the dress at hip level, with a section left open at the centre-front. There is a closure at the centre-back, consisting of twelve hooks and eyes.

The skirt is made from cream coloured satin and green tulle. The upper section consists of a cream skirt, extending from wist to lower hips, with an inner cotton waist band, which joins at the centre-back. Attached to this are single, long strands of green net simulating sea weed that hang from the hips to past the knees.

For many years following the acquisition of the Kellerman costume collection, it was assumed that the skirt was a stand-alone costume piece. It was not until proper measurements were taken and compared that it was discovered that the waist measurements of the skirt and dress were identical, and the length of the skirt waistband directly coincided with the length of the the dress skirt (so that the waistband sat perfectly underneath the dress), and from this it was concluded that the skirt and dress were actually two pieces of the same costume.

Link to further information about this object

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Annette Kellerman's parents were Frederick Kellerman (born in Sydney in 1860) and Alice Charbonnet (daughter of Judge Amable Charbonnet, the Roving Chief Justice of French Possessions and Colonies in the South Pacific, and American Ellen Jackson, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 12th October 1860).

Alice Charbonnet arrived in Australia when she was 18, sent by the French government to perform and demonstrate the French pianos of Erard at the first Melbourne Exhibition. There she met, and became friends with, Nellie Mitchell (later Dame Nellie Melba) and taught her to play her own accompaniments on the piano. After Melbourne, Alice travelled to Sydney where she met Frederick Kellerman: they married in Canterbury in 1882.

Annette Kellerman was born 6th July, 1886, in Marrickville, NSW, and was the second of four siblings: she had two brothers Maurice (older brother) and Fred, and one sister, Marcelle.

Annette Kellerman married her manager James Sullivan in November 1912 in Connecticut.

Sullivan died in 1972 and Annette died on 5 November 1975, aged 88.

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman was born 6 July, 1886, in Darlinghurst, Sydney to Frederick and Alice Kellerman. Suffering from rickets, Annette wore painful steel braces. She learned to swim and dive in Cavill's Baths at Farm Cove, soon mastering all the strokes and breaking records. "Only a cripple can understand the intense joy that I experienced when, little by little, I found that my legs were growing stronger and taking on the normal shape."

During the Depression Annette gave diving demonstrations in Melbourne and created her underwater mermaid show.

In 1904 Frederick persuaded Annette to swim the Thames from Putney Bridge to Blackwall Pier. Completing in 3 hours, 54 minutes she hit the headlines.

In 1906 Annette became the first woman to attempt the English Channel. After 3 tries she said she 'had the endurance, but not the brute strength.'

The Prince of Wales (later George V) invited Annette to give a diving demonstration at London's Bath Club. Annette attached stockings to her racing suit, otherwise too revealing. The Prince was delighted with both the demonstration and the scandalously skin-tight swimsuit!

In a race on the Seine Annette came 3rd against 17 men. On the Danube she knocked 15 minutes off the record.

From 1907 Annette created a mermaid act for the London Hippodrome, before touring the United States. Annette was arrested for indecent exposure in her racing suit on Revere Beach, Boston. She hit the world headlines, challenging that women's swimwear was akin to "swimming in chains." The publicity continued when Harvard Professor, Dudley Sargent, announced Annette's measurements a close match to Venus de Milo, and declared Annette the "perfect woman."

James "Jimmie" Sullivan took over from Frederick as Annette's manager and in 1912 they were married in Connecticut.

With the help of Leslie T. Peacocke, Annette developed an aquatic fantasy script for Universal Pictures. Shot in Bermuda, 'Neptune's Daughter' debuted on Broadway in 1914, grossing over a million dollars. In 1916 the first million dollar budget film A Daughter of the Gods was launched in which the fearless female lead appeared scandalously nude. Annette raised money for the Red Cross and with the War Benefit Concert in 1918. 

After the war Annette toured the world performing, film making and lecturing on physical fitness.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

With the outbreak of WWII Annette and Jimmie settled briefly on Newry Island, just off the coast of Queensland. They then set about touring the east coast of Australia, and New Guinea, performing for Australian and American servicemen and raised the equivalent of over $50,000 for the Red Cross.

In 1952 Annette was engaged by M.G.M. as technical adviser on a film about her life called "Million Dollar Mermaid" that starred Esther Williams. Annette and Jimmie remained in America for a time, running a chain of health food stores, before deciding to return to Australia in 1956 for good.

They lived together on the Gold Coast until Jimmie's death in 1972; he and Annette had been married for sixty years.In 1974 Annette was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Annette donated her collection of papers and memorabilia to the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of the Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House in September 1975.

Annette Kellerman died on the 8th November, 1975, and her ashes were scattered on the Great Barrier Reef.

When the Opera House closed the Dennis Wolanski Library in 1996 the collection was split, with the papers and photographs transferred to the State Library of New South Wales and the extensive collection of costumes and other artefacts transferred to the Powerhouse Museum.

This costume relates to the development of stage shows and film making in the early 20th century.

The use of sequins and other reflective decorations, such as diamantes, is common throughout the Kellerman collection, probably as they were the best way to create the impression of scales, while at the same time remaining relatively beautiful due to their colour and reflective nature; the same applies to the use of tulle to mimic seaweed in both appearance and movement underwater.

Where did this information come from?

The Powerhouse Museum's Ke-EMu catalogue for item 2000/66/47, prepared by Peter Cox, Curator.

Transcript of 'Venus of the South Seas - The Annette Kellerman Collection: an illustrated talk' given by Einar Docker, Collections Officer, at the Powerhouse Museum in 2009.

Research report prepared by Einar Docker, Collections Officer, prepared in 2009.

Transcript of an interview with Barbara Firth, member of the Opera House Ladies Committee, who had responsibility for the Annette Kellerman Collection for over a decade, conducted in 2009.

Cox, Peter - 'Annette Kellerman - Venus of the South Seas', Modern Times: the untold story of modernism in Australia (Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara eds). Carlton: Miegunyah Press, 2008.

Notes by Annette Kellerman

Notes by Marcelle Wooster (nee Kellerman)

Valerie Robinson and David Cowell "Annette Kellerman: Australia's Million Dollar Mermaid"

This garment has been exhibited

Dress only

"Watermarks" Australian National Maritime Museum, 2001 - 2003

"Exposed! The story of swimwear" Australian National Maritime Museum, 2 July - 25 October 2009

  1. Place of origin:

    Possibly USA

  2. Owned by:

    Annette Kellerman until 1975

    Sydney Opera House Performing Arts Archive 1975 - 1999

    Powerhouse Museum 1999 - present

  3. Worn by:

    Annette Kellerman

  4. Occasion(s):

    Either on stage or in one of her films.

  5. Place:

    Most likely USA, although possibly Europe or Australia.

  6. Designed by:

    Unknown: possibly Annette, her sister Marcelle, or a costume designer with a theatre or film company.

  7. Made by:

    Unknown; although it is possible that it was made by Annette's sister, Marcelle, who helped with many of Annette's costumes and sets, otherwise it was most likely the costume department with a theatre, or film company.

  8. Made for:

    Annette Kellerman

Trimmings / Decoration

The dress is decorated with sequins.

There is a wide strip of round iridescent sequins down the front of the dress, with iridescent larger tear-drop shaped sequins on either side of the strip, with smaller patches of round sequins intermittently disbursed throughout the tear-drop sequins.

Fibre / Weave

The dress is a gold-coloured metallic material, with a green net overlay to which the sequins are attached. There are four layers of green/teal tulle.

The original lining is a beige muslin; additional black cotton lining was added to the top part of the dress in 2001 to give the garment additional support so it could be put on display.

The skirt is comprised of two sections; the upper section is made of cream satin silk and the lower section is made of green tulle, sewn into the waistband so it hangs like sea weed.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


Like most of the costumes in the Powerhouse's Annette Kellerman collection, this costume is hand made. The lack of manufacturers' labels has made it hard for many of the costumes to be dated accurately. This skirt, however, is so stylistically similar to a costume for Daughter of the Gods (1916) that Kellerman was photographed in during a publicity shoot (as well as fashionable skirts of the mid and late 1910s), and the dress stylistically similar to the flapper dresses of the 1920s with its loose fit and drop waist, that it can be confidently dated to 1914-1920s.

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


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


The dress has a centre-back closure of twelve hook and eyes, there are also a number of press studs joining the green/teal tulle to the dress at the wearer's left.

Upper skirt joins at the back with three large hook and eyes and six metal press studs.

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The dress has single, thin bones at sides and centre-back. The dress is lined with beige muslin, and a black cotton yoke that is a later addition.

The upper skirt has an inner waist band made from white cotton.


dress skirt
Waist 700 mm
Hip 940 mm
Front neck to hem 690 mm
Front waist to hem 620 mm
Back neck to hem 950 mm
Back waist to hem 620 mm
Neck to sleeve head 45 mm
Convert to inches

Some measurements were unobtainable due to the fragility of the dress, and length measurements are approximate, as each section of tulle is a different length.

Dress Themes

This dress may have been a film costume for Neptune's Daughter (1914), but, if not, was almost certainly a costume Kellerman wore in her stage performances.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

Cox, Peter - 'Annette Kellerman - Venus of the South Seas', Modern Times: the untold story of modernism in Australia (Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara eds). Carlton: Miegunyah Press, 2008.

Docker, Einar - 'A Daughter of Neptune - Annette Kellerman', Object of the Week Blog. Powerhouse Museum, 2009. []

Firth, Barbara & Emily Gibson - The Original Million Dollar Mermaid. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2005.

Image of Neptune's Daughter (1914) advertising poster - available at

Advertisement for Annette Kellerman's mail order health booklets

Other related objects

The Powerhouse Museum holds an extensive collection of Annette Kellermann's costumes, swimsuits and film and theatre memorabilia. It also holds a swimming costume worn in the 1952 movie based on her life, as well as swimming costumes made under the 'Annette Kellerman' brand.

Link to collection online


All fabric in the dress is worn, stained and crumpled.

Splits and tears are common, particularly on the tulle layer supporting the sequins. The metallic fabric and tulle layer are also very worn around the neck, shoulders and centre-back closure.

The gold fabric is tarnished and unravelling in areas.

Many sequins have been lost, and many others are only loosely attached or on loose threads. Many of the remaining sequins are scratched, and some are bent or cracked.

The hem of the tulle skirt is heavily frayed, with some discolouration.

The original lining is discoloured and crumpled, particularly around the shoulders.

Base of the centre-back closure is secured with a safety pin.

The satin waistband of the skirt is crumpled and stained.

The press studs are slightly rusted, discolouring the stitching.

Green tulle is crumpled, and the hem is heavily frayed.

There are red/brown stains on the upper skirt. It is possible that these stains on the skirt are blood, as there was a well documented incident during the filming of Neptune�??s Daughter (1914) where the glass tank, in which Annette was filming an underwater scene, burst and propelled Annette through the broken glass from which she received many cuts.

Evidence of repairs

Black cotton yoke added to the inside top of the dress to strengthen it for display.

Safety pin at the bottom of the centre-back closure of the dress.


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


  1. Discolouration
  2. Distorted/warped
  3. Brittle
  4. Frayed
  5. Crease
  6. Parts missing
  7. Stained
  8. Water damage
  9. Worn
[Collapse all]