Annette Kellerman was ahead of her time for her physical abilities in the water, her belief in the need for women to maintain a healthy body, and importantly in fashion by her swimwear. She seemed to live in a different era, undeterred by the formalities and restrictions, (whether real or self-imposed) that prevented most women from doing the same. In fact, many of things she did would never have occurred to most women of the early 20th century.
Originally from Australia, Annette took her talents worldwide, breaking swimming and diving records, traveling to various theater stages in Europe and the United States, and eventually made Hollywood silent films that showcased her talents. Hollywood later revisited her incredibly life story, and Ester Williams would channel Annette in The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty by Mimi Matthews covers the course of women’s fashion and beauty changes from the 1840s through the 1890s, basically the length of Queen Victoria’s reign and influence. The book speaks to a lot of what initially drew me into researching the period of 1880-1930 in terms of the dramatic changes from restrictive, complex clothing and social customs to riding bicycles and wearing looser, linear garments without even a corset for shaping (or at least without the appearance of one).
I like the opening dichotomy of the book, “Though a young and eventually transformative queen had ascended the British throne in 1837, ordinary women of the 1840s had very little freedom of their own” (Matthews, 3). This would largely remain true throughout the reign of Queen Victoria. Women at this time anticipated that they would need assistance just to put on their clothing (which is why the closures were typically in the back) let alone doing much of anything on their own without a chaperone.