On a sunny summer day in 1908, on the crowded Revere Beach in Boston, Massachusetts, Australian swimming sensation Annette Kellerman tangled with the law. As young ladies splashed among the waves with their pretty bathing dresses and bloomers, the 21-year-old Kellerman set out for a swim in a one-piece men’s bathing suit that revealed a good portion of her thighs.
Dubbed the “Australian Mermaid,” Kellerman was in the midst of an American tour in which she wowed crowds with her diving stunts and with her form-fitting bathing suit (initially with stockings for full leg coverage). When she was arrested in Boston for indecent exposure, she simply explained to the judge that she couldn’t “swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothes line.”
The judge agreed and Kellerman went on her way toward a career not just as a Vaudeville performer, but also as a movie actress (including playing the lead in A Daughter of the Gods, in which she bared much more than her thighs), and as a health and fitness guru. One Harvard professor (who somehow managed to make a living out of studying the female form, the sly dog) even determined that she was the “perfect woman” because her measurements so closely mirrored the Venus de Milo.
She was a woman way beyond her time, which was after all, a time when women sometimes still used bathing machines (a kind of wheeled dressing room) to enter the water without anyone seeing their voluminous precursors to the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikini.
So I suppose womankind owes Ms. Kellerman a debt of gratitude. But as I stole a little time from this busy week of end-of-the-year school programs and projects so I could do some peaceful shopping for a new swimming suit or two before I start spending pretty much every afternoon at the pool with my kids, I found myself wishing for a little more fabric, or maybe some bloomers, or even a dressing room on wheels.
There’s little that can shake a woman’s confidence in her own physical beauty more than looking at herself in a mirror, in bad lighting, wearing little more than her underwear. Still, I’m a swimmer. The sport is one of my great loves and I am eager every spring to get outside and hit the water, whether I resemble the Venus de Milo or not.
But like Kellerman, I’m pretty practical about my swimwear. I will get out there and brave the racks of the kinds of swimsuits that run the very real risk of falling off in the water and probably ought to get their wearers arrested in Boston for indecent exposure, so I can find a suit that will allow me to move like the American mermaid I was meant to be.
And I think Annette Kellerman would approve. Because even though she was never shy about displaying her own beauty for the world, she was first and foremost a proponent of women’s physical fitness. As such I suspect her attitude toward the teeny-weeny dental floss bikinis available today would be similar to that of her attitude toward the bathing dresses of the early 20th century.
About those she had this to say: “There are two kinds of bathing suits, those for use in the water, and those that are unfit for use except on dry land. If you are going to swim, wear a water bathing suit. But if you are merely going to play on the beach and pose for your camera friends, you may safely wear the dry land variety.”
I think I’ll stick with the water kind, because no one is getting near me with a camera. And this mermaid’s gotta swim.