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.
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.