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Women who took the plunge

Women who took the plunge

Women who took the plunge


We’ve all felt some trepidation when stepping out in a swimsuit. But these women had to fight for the right to be allowed to swim at all…

Annette Kellerman

When Annette Kellerman was born in Sydney in 1886, women were allowed to swim but obscenity laws required that their bodies had to be covered from head to toe in dark, form-concealing costumes, making it practically impossible.

So when Annette was taught to swim at 2, it was to strengthen her limbs after a bout of polio. Nobody expected that she would go on to hold the world 100m record aged 16, later moving to marathon swimming in distances never before attempted by a woman.

Annette Kellerman was known for her perfect figure

Annette Kellerman was known for her perfect figure

On moving to England, Annette swam 17 miles down the Thames in five hours, and raced 17 men down the Seine in Paris, finishing second. She was the first woman to attempt swimming the English Channel, and invented underwater ballet, a precursor to synchronised swimming.

In 1907, aged 21 Annette moved to the US, but found the cumbersome dresses and pantaloons that American women were expected to swim in appalling. As a protest, she wore a one-piece bathing suit that exposed her figure and bare legs on a beach near Boston only to be arrested for indecent exposure.

At her trial, she argued successfully that women needed to be able to swim to save their own lives – more than 1,000 passengers, largely women and children, had perished in New York’s East River in 1904, when the General Slocum caught alight. Publicity around her case led to the end of Victorian attitudes to women’s swimwear.


Speedo Women's racing suit 1964

Speedo Women’s racing suit 1964


Charlotte Epstein

In the early 20th century, women were beginning to gain acceptance as athletes and two swimming events for women were included in the 1912 Olympic Games – but the United States still chose not to send any women to the Games.

As the founder of the first all-women’s swimming club in the US, Charlotte Epstein campaigned for American athletics to recognise women’s swimming. She succeeded, but knew that the authorities’ strict dress codes would handicap girls at the Olympics. She persuaded two swimmers to reconstruct Annette Kellerman’s protest, appearing on a beach without stockings. Both were arrested, but the resulting furore led to their release and freed American women from the restrictive stockings for swimming.



Gertrude Ederle

The daughter of a German butcher, Gertrude Ederle won one gold and one bronze medal at the 1924 Olympic Games, but felt that she should have done better. With something to prove, she set about swimming the English Channel – a challenge that had been completed by only a handful of men, and no women.

Not only did Ederle succeed in 1926, she beat the best time recorded by a man by over two hours. Proving that women had the stamina to participate in demanding sport was a landmark in the women’s rights movement.


Gertrude Ederla, Channel crossing attempt

Gertrude Ederla, Channel crossing attempt


The Golden Age

Conservative attitudes to swimwear were slow to die out – the Australian swimmer Clare Dennis was accused of showing “too much shoulder” in her Speedo racerback at the 1932 Olympics. But by the 1950s, bikinis were beginning to be accepted and the invention of Nylon gave designers of one and two-pieces new possibilities.

Women’s swimwear finally threw off the last vestiges of “modesty” in the 1970s, the time of the women’s liberation movement, with the removal of the skirt feature on women’s Olympic swimwear and the popularisation of the triangle bikini. Swimwear’s golden age had begun.

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