The Arrest That Led to the Modern-Day Swimsuit

Nowadays most people don’t think twice when they see a sunbather wearing a skimpy bikini on the beach or by the pool. But in the early twentieth century, showing even a fraction of the skin on display today could get you arrested. This is exactly what happened to famous swimmer Annette Kellerman, and her arrest would help to revolutionize the world of women’s swimwear.

Annette was born in Sydney, Australia in 1886. As a child, she had problems with her legs that required her to wear steel braces for years. At one point, her parents decided to take her to a swimming pool to help build up her leg strength. This worked, and Annette became a world-class swimmer. She went on to break several world records for female swimmers and even beat most of the men is several races she competed in. She also became a star, performing in several vaudeville acts as a high diver, and underwater ballerina, and a mermaid.

wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu

But Annette had a problem. When she went to the beach, the law required that she wear a morally acceptable bathing suit. For women of that time period, this consisted of a knee-length black dress, usually made out of wool, worn over both woolen bloomers and stockings. It was impossible to train for swimming meets in such attire, as it weighed the wearer down.

Annette was in the United States for a major swimming competition in Boston. She needed to practice, so she went to nearby Revere Beach to hit the water. She donned her one-piece bathing suit, which revealed her legs well above her knees. Though this would be considered a modest swimsuit by today’s standards, it was absolutely shocking in 1907. She was promptly arrested when an offended bather called the police.

The judge, impressed with her swimming accomplishments and understanding of her predicament, let Annette go. He also told her she could continue to wear her swimsuit at public beaches to train in as long as she wore a full-length cape all the way to the water’s edge.

After this experience, Annette decided to introduce her unconventional swimwear to the world. She designed a version of the suit that covered more of the arms and legs, but that still fit tight enough to allow freedom of movement. She marketed the design as the “Annette Kellerman.” By 1910, these suits had become acceptable women’s swimwear in many parts of the world.

Annette, who died in 1975 ate age 89, was not a fan of the bikini, however. The woman famous for daringly baring her legs felt that the bikini showed too much skin. She didn’t oppose it on moral grounds, though. She just didn’t think that most women would be able to pull it off and that it would be unflattering to most. It would be interesting to be able to hear her thoughts about the racy swimwear on display today.

Next Article
ADVERTISEMENT
  • Weird Food of the Middle Ages

    People often like to romanticize the Middle Ages, imagining it as a time of knights and princesses, all dressed in elaborate medieval garb. Some even dream about going back in time to experience life during that time, and renaissance fairs and a popular dinner show have capitalized quite well on this obsession. But many people...

    Read More
  • Witches and Alewives: The Historical Connection

    From The Wizard of Oz to Halloween costumes, the archetypal image of a scary witch typically includes a tall, pointy hat, a cauldron, and a broom, among other accessories. But where did this popular conception arise? Many would be surprised to learn that our idea of what a witch looks like is based on the...

    Read More
  • America’s Secret Female President

    Edith Bolling Galt Wilson seemed an unlikely prospect for running one of the most powerful countries in the world. The second wife of President Woodrow Wilson was born in 1872 to a very poor family from the mountains of Virginia. Though she was given a chance to go to college, she dropped out because her...

    Read More
  • The Reality Behind the Legend of the Golden Fleece

    If you are familiar at all with Greek mythology, you have probably heard about the legend of the Golden Fleece. In this story, Jason (a Greek mythological hero) gathered a group of fellow-heroes together. This group became known as the Argonauts because their ship was named Argo, and Jason was their leader. The purpose of...

    Read More
  • Aaron Burr: Would-Be King

    Aaron Burr, one of the United States’ founding fathers and its one-time Vice President, has generally gone down in history as a bad guy because of the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. But for some reason, most people don’t know anything about another chapter in his life...

    Read More
  • Ancient Crocodile Species Identified

    A research team made up of paleontologists from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Texas has identified a previously unknown species of prehistoric crocodile. The ancient reptile fossils were found in Arlington, Texas, a busy city located right in the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area. The massive crocodile, which could reach lengths of up to 20...

    Read More
  • The Murder and Lynching that Changed America

    April 26, 1913 was supposed to have been a good day for 13-year-old Mary Phagan. It was Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived. She was off for the day from her job at the National Pencil Company. Her plans included stopping by work to pick up her pay and then joining family...

    Read More
  • Female Viking Warrior Grave Identified

    In the 1880s, a Viking grave was excavated in the town of Birka in Sweden. It was obviously the grave of a warrior because it was filled with grave goods signifying as much. Along with weapons, like an axe, arrows, shields, a battle knife, a spear, and a sword, two war horses were also found...

    Read More