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Image Mermaid costume, 1906-40

TLF ID M000248

This is a mermaid performance costume worn by Annette Kellerman throughout the USA and Europe between 1906 and 1940. It comprises a tightly fitted one-piece yellow cotton costume designed to fit under the arms with the bodice tapering in to the waist and down the legs to end in a padded 'fishtail'. The whole outfit is decorated with a fish-scale pattern worked in diamantes, which have been sewn on individually. An opening at the back of the tail allows for the wearer's feet to be outside the tail. This costume was possibly worn in one of her film roles or on stage, but does not appear to have been worn under water. It features a centre opening at the back of the waist, fastening with seven metal hooks and eyes.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This costume was owned and used by Annette Kellerman, the Australian creator of the women's one-piece swimsuit. She became an international celebrity as an endurance swimmer, an entertainer of the vaudeville stage and a star of American silent films. When she retired from long-distance swimming, Kellerman turned to performance and appeared at the London Hippodrome. She developed a spectacular form of entertainment that combined diving into a glass tank, swimming and graceful underwater ballet. She was often called the 'Australian Mermaid' and 'Diving Venus'.
  • Kellerman influenced public attitudes toward the female body. She published books instructing women on beauty and physical fitness, and lectured on health and exercise throughout Europe and North America. She was judged as 'the perfect woman' by Dr Dudley Sargent of Harvard University. Her own 'ideal' physique personified a new aesthetic of natural female beauty, one that valued athleticism and unadorned bodily display. In this way she was a trailblazer for the 'new woman'.
  • Born at Darlinghurst in Sydney, Annette Kellerman (1886-1975) took up swimming at the age of 6 to strengthen her semi-crippled legs. To improve her family's finances, she turned to professional competitive swimming and became a champion, setting a New South Wales record for the 100 yards, and a world record for the 1-mile race.
  • Her one-piece swimsuit and her epic swims attracted the attention of theatre managers in the USA. She went to the USA in 1907 and performed at Chicago, Boston and New York. While preparing for a coastal swim to publicise performances at Boston's Wonderland, Kellerman was arrested on Revere Beach for wearing a one-piece bathing suit that clung to her body and exposed her thighs. The incident generated worldwide publicity. The judge dismissed the case, accepting her arguments in favour of exercise and against restrictive, cumbersome swimming costumes. He allowed her to wear her bathing suit as long as she wore a robe until she entered the water. Kellerman had successfully contested the restrictions placed on female bathers and challenged the accepted standards of decency. She continued to wear her trademark one-piece bathing suit for both public swimming and stage acts, attracting a great deal of publicity, especially in the USA. She also designed a modern bathing suit for women by adding to her existing swimsuit a 'modesty panel', a tight-fitting skirt which came to just above the knees.
  • Kellerman had a long career in vaudeville and played in the theatres of Europe and the USA. She presented herself as a mythic persona, part mermaid and part Venus. She augmented her stage act to include wire walking, ballet dancing, acrobatics, singing, physical culture and comedy. She trained a large chorus of 'Kellerman girls' to accompany her in a form of choreographed water ballet, a forerunner to the modern sport of synchronised swimming.
  • Kellerman was the first Australian woman to star in US movies. With its extensive underwater scenes, 'Neptune's Daughter' (1914) was a fairytale of a near-naked mermaid that grossed over $1 million at the box office. She showed her dancing and acting skills in the lost film 'A Daughter of the Gods' (1916). Filmed in Jamaica, it was the first US film production with a million-dollar budget. She also starred in several other films. In 1952 Esther Williams played Annette Kellerman in a Hollywood biopic, the water spectacular titled 'Million Dollar Mermaid'.
  • Kellerman made a big impression during her vaudeville tour of Australia in 1921-22. Just before the Second World War, she and her husband settled for a period on the Barrier Reef in Queensland. She worked voluntarily for the Red Cross throughout the War, writing, producing and performing in shows to entertain the troops in the South Pacific. She returned to Australia permanently in 1970, living on the Gold Coast until her death in 1975.
  • This costume may have been worn by Kellerman in the very successful film 'Neptune's Daughter'. The film was based on her idea of a 'water fantasy movie with beautiful mermaids in King Neptune's garden together with a good love story'. The film was made by Universal on the island of Bermuda and cost $35,000 to make, grossing $1 million at the box office. The costume may also have been worn by Kellerman in her stage productions. According to her obituary in the Australian newspaper (7 November 1975), 'The Opera House collection ... includes the beautiful yellow satin and diamante mermaid tail she wore in some of her films'.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Powerhouse Museum
  • Organization: Powerhouse Museum
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: NSW, AUSTRALIA
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  • Publisher
  • Name: Powerhouse Museum
  • Organization: Powerhouse Museum
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: NSW, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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  • Image
  • © Curriculum Corporation and Trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences 2009 (except where otherwise indicated). You may view, display, print out, copy and modify this material for non-commercial educational purposes provided you retain all acknowledgements associated with the material.