Swimming Tights by Annette Kellerman

Okay, I know that the garment above doesn’t look like a big deal, but appearances can really deceive.  In 1905 when other women around the world were wearing dress and bloomer bathing suits, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman introduced Europe to the one-piece swimming suit for women.  At the time, even most men were still wearing two-piece bathing suits, consisting of knit trunks that came to the knee with a long tee shirt on top.

But in Australia, competitive swimmers, both male and female, had begun wearing one-piece knit suits for the sport.  When Kellerman went to England in 1905 for a swimming exhibition, she found a much stricter set of rules for women swimmers.  In order to perform, she took a pair of black stockings and sewed them to her suit to provide more coverage.  She was then allowed to perform.

This 1914 ad shows the famous suit

Two years later Kellerman gained notoriety when she appeared on a beach near Boston, and was promptly arrested for indecency.  At her hearing she argued that swimming was a healthful exercise, but that bulky bathing suits did not allow one to swim.  The judge agreed, provided she agreed to wear a robe when not in the water.

Note: On the Powerhouse Museum website, the notes for an Annette Kellermann suit in their collection state, “…the story that she got herself arrested at Boston’s Revere Beach for wearing a one-piece bathing suit is not supported by evidence.”  The story is often repeated, and Kellerman herself related the tale in a 1953 interview.  

By this time Kellerman was quite famous, and so the time was right to capitalize on her name.  The right deal came along in the form of Asbury Mills, who for about twenty years made Annette Kellermann swimsuits.  The early ones were very similar to what she had been wearing, but by the late 1910s, the products were more like the standard 1920s swimsuit for women.  In fact, one Australian site credits Kellerman with coming up with the one-piece suit with the attached overskirt.

My suit has a deeply scooped neck of the type Kellerman seemed to favor.  The photos of her in her very early suits show a small cap sleeve instead of my sleeveless version.

The description of the suit on the site where I found it read that the waist seam stitches were broken.  When I received the suit I realized that there was no waist seam originally and that a former owner had put the seam it to shorten it.  There was so little of the seam left that I made the decision to remove it.

Whenever I have a garment that has alterations or damage, I have to decide what, if anything, to do about it.  Many times I leave it as is, but in this case I wanted the swimsuit returned, as much as possible, to the original state.

I say as close as possible, because the seam did leave a crease and a faint faded area.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has an extensive collection of Kellerman material, including many of the costumes she wore in movies and public performances.  Starting August 10, much of it will be on display at the museum.

You might have noticed that I used two different spellings of Annette’s name.  While she generally spelled Kellerman with one N, she did use two N’s on her label and in her books.


Filed under Curiosities, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Summer Sports

12 responses to “Swimming Tights by Annette Kellerman

  1. Fascinating. Also interesting how people can distort the memory of their story through their own narrative. Wonderful piece of history!


  2. Thank you for this interesting information! The provenance of the tank suits-tights is elusive. I remember signs at the beach in the 60’s -“cover ups /tee shirts must be worn at all times on the boardwalk! That was Rehobeth Beach ,Delaware! then came the bikini! Mercy!


  3. Oh man! This story came up recently with a friend. As ever, I appreciate your work and your preservation efforts.


  4. Ruth

    Here’s a suggestion for getting rid of the seam and holes. I don’t know if you want to wash it, presumably you would very gently squeeze it in some warm soapy water if so. I have used regular spray starch to get rid of seam holes by just spraying it on and washing it again after the starch dries. White vinegar will get rid of seam lines, but that may be something you don’t want to use on an older garment. You might see what a museum conservator would do in this case?


    • Ruth, thanks so much for the suggestion. I tried it and it worked! I did wash it, which was enough to shrink out the little holes. The line was greatly diminished as well.


      • Ruth

        Glad it worked! Believe or not, my brother taught me that one 40 years ago. He worked for an ambulance company and they they had those stupid polyester uniforms. He had to change badges several times and that was his trick for getting rid of holes.

        Liked by 1 person

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