Swimsuits for Esther Williams and Annette Kellerman

Cover of Esther Williams' autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid.

Cover of Esther Williams’ autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid.

Esther Williams’ swimsuit in the movie Million Dollar Mermaid (click here) , a film based on the life of champion swimmer and diving star Annette Kellerman, bore only a partial resemblance to the one that got Annette Kellerman arrested.

Swimming champion Annette Kellerman, circa 1907

Swimming champion Annette Kellerman, circa 1907. There is some disagreement about whether the offensive suit was sleeveless or had cap sleeves.

“When Annette Kellerman stepped out onto Revere Beach in 1907 wearing a one-piece bathing suit that ended in shorts above her knees, her legs caused a scandal. Police were called, and she was arrested for indecency,” wrote Kristin Toussaint in the Boston Globe’s website. [July 2, 2015]

To read the rest of Toussaint’s article, with a large slide show of vintage bathing suit photos, click here. This picture (click here) shows that other female competitive swimmers were wearing even less in 1907.

Nevertheless, ten years later, a group of chorus girls from Daly’s Theatre in London posed for a bathing suit photo in suits that covered a lot more than the suit that shocked Boston in 1907. (click here.)

In 1920, in the United States, women at a public pool posed in knitted wool suits which presented a real danger of drowning in the surf; if you have ever hand-washed a long-sleeved wool sweater, you know how heavy wet wool can be! In this picture from 1922, the woman on the right is wearing a ruffled swimsuit, rather like the one below– at least it’s not wool!

Ruffled 1920's bathing suit.

Ruffled vintage 1920’s bathing suit.

Of course, some swimming suits have always been intended for lounging and sunbathing, rather than getting wet.

Bathing suit from an ad for HInds sun cream; Delineator, June 1929/

Bathing suit from an ad for Hinds sun cream; Delineator, June 1929.

Annette Kellerman settled her problems with the law by promising to stay covered by a cape until she entered the water, according to Toussaint . . .

The young women at the left are critical of the conservative fashions worn by the one with the cape. From The Way to Wear'em, by Christina Walkley.

The young women at the left are critical of the conservative fashions worn by the one with the cape. From The Way to Wear’em, by Christina Walkley.

. . . or by wearing full length tights to cover her legs, as Kellerman did in this photo:

Annette Kellerman with her legs completely covered.

Annette Kellerman with her legs — and shoulders –completely covered.

As a long-distance speed swimmer, Kellerman had to eliminate the drag of her swimsuit as much as possible, but as an exhibition diver and swimmer — she played the vaudeville circuit — publicity photos like this one were more likely to get printed in local papers. Many women wore stockings with their bathing costumes. Since “erogenous zones” keep changing, it’s worth noting that it was her bare legs, not her breasts, that were the subject of scandal. I’m enough of a cynic to believe that the sight of Ms. Kellerman in a cold, wet bathing suit must have been part of her attraction. (Remember that best-selling poster of Farah Fawcett?)

That, and the fact that Kellerman introduced the Australian crawl to swimmers all over the world.

Kellerman kept up with the times, too. Here she is in an ad from 1931:

Annette Kellerman in an advertisement for her diet plan; Delineator, August 1931.

Annette Kellerman in an advertisement for her diet plan; Delineator, August 1931.

Women reading this ad would be aware that Kellerman was in her forties; she’d been a public figure (in both senses of the word) for 26 years. And her figure, once “perfect” because it resembled the Venus de Milo, now has the slender lines of the 1920’s and 30’s.

Annette Kellerman ad for her diet and exercise plan; Delineator, Aug. 1931.

Annette Kellerman ad for her diet and exercise plan; Delineator, Aug. 1931.

I’m happy to say that her weight loss plan appears to be based on healthy practices:

1931 aug delin btm 500 diet annette kellerman ad

“I allow you plenty of delicious, satisfying foods, but they produce energy instead of fat. I use no drugs or pills; prescribe no starvation diets.” The ad also mentions improvements in posture, “pep and energy,” so — I hope — exercise was part of “The Body Beautiful” plan.

Esther Williams was also a teenaged swimming champion before she became a movie star. In fact, in her very good autobiography, (which she also called “Million Dollar Mermaid“) she mentions the many times her life was in danger while filming, because there simply were no stunt performers who could do what she could do. Certainly, no stuntman could look like Williams in a bathing suit! She had to stay underwater for long periods, performing till the end of the shot before she could grab a breath from a concealed air supply tube.  She really did perform her own high dives off of trapezes and towers. (She did refuse to perform one very high dive while pregnant.)

Public domain image of Esther Williams

Public domain image of Esther Williams

The producers of the movie in which she played a fictional version of Annette Kellerman — “Million Dollar Mermaid” — wisely saved her most difficult high dive until the end of the shoot. Her glittering full bodysuit included a tight-fitting hood with a crown attached to its top. When Williams hit the water, the crown formed a cup at the top of her head; instead of piercing the water smoothly, her head and neck snapped back; she broke bones in her back, and she was lucky not to be paralyzed.

This costume is apparently the one that put Williams in a body cast for several months (click here).

Poor Esther — who made a full recovery — was always having to stand on her tiptoes in photos, to make her strong, athletic legs look longer.

Esther Williams posing on tiptoes in a Cole swimming suit. From her book, Million Dollar Mermaid.

Esther Williams posing on tiptoes in a Cole swimming suit. From her book, Million Dollar Mermaid.

So, naturally, when the studio recreated Annette Kellerman’s one piece suit for her, they shortened its legs, for an unbroken long leg line, effectively putting the star in an almost-modern (1952) bathing suit.  You can see the movie trailer [preview]– with several of her costumes, including the head-to-toe bodysuit — by clicking here.

Like Kellerman, Williams turned herself into a business. Williams had a long working relationship with bathing suit manufacturer Cole of California. She even persuaded the U.S. Navy to order 50,000 swimsuits from Cole.  Million Dollar Mermaid, by Esther Williams with Digby Diehl, would be a great poolside or summer “read.” Used paperbacks are available for as little as a penny!

And the movie has choreography (over the top — of course) by Busby Berkeley. Starring Esther Willams and Victor Mature. [Or, to repeat an old theatre joke, “Why ‘and?’ Why not ‘But?’ “] Rent it to enjoy a little Technicolor time travel; take with plenty of popcorn and low expectations of historical accuracy.  Just in:  the 1952 movie will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015:  10 pm Eastern time, 7 pm Pacific Time.


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1930s, 1950s-1960s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bathing Suits, Sportswear, Swimsuits

7 responses to “Swimsuits for Esther Williams and Annette Kellerman

  1. Thanks for your interesting blog. I saw Esther’s gold swimsuit at a fashion exhibition here in Brisbane last year. Can you believe that a lawyer from Brisbane owns it as part of his Hollywood costume collection. The gold swimsuit looks as good now as it did all those years ago😃

    • She liked one particular Cole style so much that she wore it in several movies and had them made for the swimming “chorus,” too. I can count on one finger the number of swimming suits that I have truly loved, for comfort, fit, and flattery.

  2. lovely piece. I was always fascinated by Ester Williams as we used watch her in sunday matinees on tv when I was about 6 or 7. I thought then and still do that she was the epitome of joy…. such a fabulous smile…………

  3. What kind of support structure was inside Kellerman’s suit? It looks like there is something besides Kellerman under there.

    • I wonder, too. It does look like she is wearing a corset in the photo with long tights. She was definitely less “hourglass shaped” in some photos taken when she was younger. And, even before computer technology, photographs could be doctored….

  4. Yes it does look like a corset. But what a beautiful woman, and an interesting post.

  5. Pingback: A Look Back at Stockings, Mostly 1920’s | witness2fashion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.