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2000/66/4 Performance costume, mermaid tail, cotton / diamantes, maker unknown, United States of America, used by Annette Kellerman, United States of America / Europe, 1906-1940. Click to enlarge.

Mermaid costume worn by Annette Kellerman

This costume is part of a substantial collection of costumes and props used by Annette Kellerman (1886-1975). She became an international celebrity as an endurance swimmer, an entertainer of the vaudeville stage and a star of American silent films. She played a key role in popularising the one-piece swimsuit for women.

Born in Sydney, Kellerman took up swimming as a child to strengthen her semi-crippled legs. She became a champion, setting a New South Wales record for the 100 yards and a world record for the mile.

In 1905 she travelled to England where she made headlines by swimming over 13 miles down the River Thames. She swam the River Seine in a race, coming equal third against 17 men, and won a 22 mile race down the Danube. She almost succeeded in swimming the English Channel.

It would have been impossible to make these long-distance swims in the stuffy garments that female bathers were expected to wear. Kellerman preferred a skirtless men's racing swimsuit which revealed half her thighs. Defying convention, she was responsible more than any other person for the gradual acceptance of the one-piece bathing suit.

Kellerman retired from racing and turned to the stage, developing a spectacular form of entertainment that combined diving into a glass tank, swimming and graceful underwater ballet.

She moved to the United States in 1907 and within a remarkably short time became one of the most highly paid stars in vaudeville. Dubbed 'The Australian Mermaid' and 'The Diving Venus', she had a genius for publicity and self-promotion. However the story that she got herself arrested at Boston's Revere Beach for wearing a one-piece bathing suit is not supported by evidence.

She augmented her stage act to include wire-walking, ballet dancing, acrobatics, diabolo, singing, physical culture, male impersonation and the elaborate staging of tanks, waterfalls and slides. 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.

The first Australian woman to star in American movies, she played a daring mermaid action hero in several feature films with fairy tale storylines. With its extensive underwater scenes, 'Neptune's Daughter' (Universal, 1914) was a box office success. She showed her dancing and acting skills in the lost film 'A Daughter of the Gods' (Fox, 1916), the first US production with a million dollar budget. Esther Williams portrayed Annette Kellerman in a 1952 Hollywood biopic, MGM's water spectacular 'Million Dollar Mermaid'.

As an entrepreneur, Kellerman lent her name to various styles of one-piece swimsuit. She published books instructing women on beauty and physical fitness, and lectured on health and exercise. She was judged as 'the perfect woman' by Dr Dudley Sargent of Harvard University. Her '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 modern woman.

Kellerman was active in Australia during World War II, writing, producing and performing in fundraising shows for the Red Cross. Later she returned to live her final years on the Gold Coast.

Peter Cox
January 2016


Object No.


Object Statement

Performance costume, mermaid tail, cotton / diamantes, maker unknown, United States of America, used by Annette Kellerman, United States of America / Europe, 1906-1940

Physical Description

Tightly fitting one piece yellow cotton costume designed to fit under arms with bodice tapering in to waist and down legs to end in padded "fishtail". The whole is decorated with a fish scale pattern worked in diamantes which have been individually sewn on. An opening at the back of the tail allows for the wearer's feet to be outside the tail. Possibly worn in one of her film roles or on stage but does not appear to have been worn under water. Machine sewn and fully lined with cream cotton. Centre back opening at waist fastening with seven metal hooks and eyes.


No marks



380 mm



The mermaid's tail appears to have come from her film and/or stage work and thus dates from the period 1906 to 1940.



This costume may have been worn by Kellerman in the very successful film 'Neptune's Daughter' (1914). 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' (7 November 1975, p9), 'The Opera House collection ... includes the beautiful yellow satin and diamante mermaid tail she wore in some of her films and stage appearances'.

Annette Kellerman kept a large collection of theatrical and aquatic memorabilia from her long career. In 1975, while living in retirement on the Gold Coast, she saw a segment on ABC-TV's 'This Day Tonight' about the recently created performing arts archive at the Sydney Opera House. Having learnt to swim at Cavill's Baths in Farm Cove, near where the Opera House now stands, she decided this was the appropriate repository for her collection. She asked her sister Marcelle to ring the Opera House to make an offer of donation. Marcelle spoke to Barbara Firth, a member of the Ladies Committee of the Sydney Opera House Appeal Fund and an honorary coordinator of the performing arts archive. Frank Barnes, the Opera House's general manager, agreed that the opportunity to acquire the collection should not be missed. In September 1975 Barbara Firth spent five days on the Gold Coast with Annette Kellerman and took possession of the entire collection on behalf of the Opera House. A furniture van was needed to transport the seven large cabin trunks that held the large collection. Within weeks Kellerman had passed away, on 6 November 1975.

In the late 1990s the objects in the Annette Kellerman collection were transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House, to the Powerhouse Museum. The collection's paper material, including photographs, was transferred to the State Library of New South Wales. Barbara Firth's biography of Kellerman, written with Emily Gibson and titled 'The Original Million Dollar Mermaid' was published by Allen & Unwin in 2005.


Credit Line

Gift of the Dennis Wolanski Library, Sydney Opera House, 2000

Acquisition Date

24 May 2000

Cite this Object


Mermaid costume worn by Annette Kellerman 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 18 April 2021, <https://ma.as/9243>


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