Sometimes luminaries in popular culture are called ‘legends’. A legend is a story that has been handed down and is popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated. The legend of Annette Kellerman goes like this — born in Marrickville, she recovered from polio as a child, invented the one-piece swimsuit, was arrested in Boston for wearing it and became a Hollywood movie star. Well none of this is precisely true. There has been a tendency to exaggeration in accounts of her life. This is not necessary, as the facts are sufficiently impressive.
Annette’s birth certificate shows that she was born in 1886, not in Marrickville but at 101 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, an address that today we could call Potts Point. The family moved to Marrickville, living at 128 Silver St from 1889 to 1892. The house still stands on the corner Calvert St. The Kellerman family moved back to Potts Point, then lived at 43 Phillip St Sydney where Annette’s mother had a Conservatoire du Musique. The building that housed the conservatorium still stands on the west side of Phillip St between Bridge and Bent St, around the corner from the Museum of Sydney. While in Sydney briefly during their 1956 visit, she and her husband Jimmie stayed at 101 Warren Rd, Marrickville.
Annette was crippled as a young child with weak, bandy legs that could not support her body. Doctors argued over the cause of her deformity. She was diagnosed with rickets, a condition caused by a calcium deficiency in the bones. Her legs were fitted with painful iron braces. One doctor recommended swimming. Annette’s father Fred saw this as an opportunity for her to gain exercise and strengthen her legs. He took his young daughter to Cavill’s Baths at Farm Cove for swimming lessons. She recovered and was soon walking freely.
Annette wilfully applied herself to swimming from the age of 15. Coached by experts, she became a champion sprint and distance swimmer and diver. This was not in spite of her physical weakness, but because of the swimming therapy she underwent to treat it.
Sixty years later Annette speculated in newspaper interviews that her disability had actually been caused by polio, an infectious disease also known as infantile paralysis. While we cannot be sure what caused the problem, the fact remains that the diagnosis was rickets.
It would be simplistic to attribute the invention of the one-piece swimsuit for women solely to Annette. She adapted existing garments to suit her needs. Even before she left Australia at the age of 18, she had defied conventions of feminine modesty and gender boundaries by wearing a skirtless, men’s racing suit. In 1903 it was radical for a woman to wear this costume, which revealed her thighs and was cut low under the arms. In England she created a full-length one-piece swimsuit by stitching a pair of stockings to a men’s racing suit. Although it covered her flesh, its tightness revealed the curves of her body.
In the early 20th century, changes in attitude led to the gradual disappearance of cumbersome bathing garments and the acceptance of the one-piece costume. Women’s swimsuits became more streamlined, close-fitting and revealing. There were various social and cultural forces at work, but nobody contributed more than Kellerman to this change. The one-piece swimsuit was her trademark, if not her invention.
It has become part of Kellerman mythology that around 1907, while wearing a one-piece swimsuit on Boston’s Revere Beach, she was arrested by a policeman, charged with indecent exposure and cleared by a judge who was sympathetic to her arguments. The arrest is supposed to have created headlines in the USA. Annette first told this story in the 1930s and described it in the short, unpublished memoir she wrote in the early 1950s. However the incident remains unconfirmed by any documentary evidence, contemporary newspaper accounts or court records.
Regarding Hollywood, Annette Kellerman was a film star before the industry had shifted to the west coast, when many of the production companies were based at Fort Lee, New Jersey, near New York. Most scenes from her feature films were shot in exotic locations. Her 1920 film What Women Love was shot on location around Los Angeles but was not produced by or filmed in a Hollywood studio.
Come and see costumes and stories about the real Annette Kellerman in the Million Dollar Mermaid:Annette Kellerman exhibition on until July 2018.