Annette Kellerman on ‘How to Swim’

With our MA Dissertations out of sight (if not quite yet out of mind), we can start to follow the tempting threads of research that have been appearing over the last few months. During my writing and research on the dress and physical performances of Australian women in Britain from 1900-1940, I was distracted time and time again by the writings of Annette Kellerman. Annette was a champion swimmer, diver and eventually Hollywood’s first onscreen ‘Mermaid’. She pioneered practical bathing suits for women as part of her advocacy for women’s health and exercise, and amongst several publications, released How to Swim, in 1919.

how to swim 1
Kellerman in ‘How to Swim’, demonstrating the elegant potential of swimming for women.

In How to Swim, Kellerman used her characteristically direct style of address to confront critics who would question the respectability of women becoming involved in sport:

‘Not only in matters of swimming but in all forms of activity woman’s natural development is seriously restricted and impaired by customs and costumes and all sorts of prudish and Puritanical ideas. The girl child long before she is conscious of her sex, is continually reminded that she is a girl and therefore must forego many childhood activities. As womanhood approaches these restrictions become even more severe and the young woman is corseted and gowned and thoroughly imbued with the idea that it is most unlady-like to be possessed of legs or know how to use them.’[1]

She believed swimming was the ideal form of exercise for women as it had the potential to strengthen all the muscles in the body and do away with the ‘need’ to wear corsets to maintain a feminine figure. Kellerman’s genius lay in her ability to understand the time she was living in, and the expectations and limitations women faced around the display of their bodies during physical activities. She devoted pages and pages of How to Swim to the details of dressing for swimming; differentiating between the skirted ‘bathing beach dress’ and the streamlined ‘swimming costume’, the dangers of heavy woollen swimsuits in water, and ways of maintaining (even protecting) femininity while engaging in swimming for exercise. Illustration plates in How to Swim feature Kellerman in ‘the Bathing Cape’, which allowed a woman wearing a suitably brief swimming costume to remain modest on her approach to the water, and maintain a respectable image alongside the personal freedom that exercise, and swimming in particular provided to women of the day.

how to swim 2Never one to leave a stone unturned, or an excuse unchallenged Kellerman also shares with the readers of How to Swim how she combats the particularly female problem associated with swimming—getting your hair wet. Talcum powder and a rubber bathing cap keep the hair dry and lessen the inconvenience to health and style wet hair may pose, while with a typical Kellerman flourish she suggests the inclusion of an artfully tied scarf around the head to maintain the elegance of the ensemble–because above all she maintained that an active woman was an attractive woman. For Kellerman exercise and did not erase femininity, but had the ability to enhance it.

how to swim 3

All images from Annette Kellerman, How to Swim, London: William Heinemann, 1919.

[1] A. Kellerman. How to Swim, London: William Heinemann, 1919. p. 45