Friday, December 1, 2023

From a premier in hot pink short shorts to the burkini — how fashion helped shape our history

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From acts of political protest to tools of oppression, clothes — and the people who wore, designed or created them — have helped forge the story of Australia.

This is the role fashion played in six of the country’s history-making moments. 

Daring Annette Kellerman

Annette Kellerman shocked people with her swimsuit.(Supplied: Sears Studio/NPG)

To start, we’re going back to the turn of the 20th century with pioneering Sydney swimmer, and eventual swimwear designer, Annette Kellerman.

“She was a wild-cat — a champion swimmer and a diver and silent film star,” says fashion journalist Glynis Traill-Nash on ABC TV’s The Way We Wore.

“I mean, is there anything this woman couldn’t do?”

Kellerman forged her career and fame during the first wave of feminism and the suffragette movement in the early 1900s.

It was a time when there was a push from women — particularly in Australia with our unique climate — towards wearing clothes that were more practical.

Annette Kellerman standing on a rock by the ocean with her hands up as if she's about to dive into the water

Kellerman was a champion swimmer before she took up acting in silent, underwater films.(Supplied: National Film and Sound Archive)

But despite the activism, it was still a time when women showing flesh wasn’t considered polite.

This was why it caused quite a fuss in 1907 when Kellerman donned a swimsuit of her own design while visiting the US.

“The shapely Miss Kellerman achieved most notoriety of all when she scandalised the bathers on Boston’s Revere Beach by walking down to the water wearing one-piece bathers,” said a report from Mackay’s Daily Mercury in 1953.

“Strong men turned pale at the revealing sight, and shocked women covered their eyes and reached for their smelling salts.”

Kellerman persevered with the new style, eventually releasing her own swimwear line.

In doing so, she contributed to the growing desire of Australian women to have greater empowerment and autonomy over their own bodies.

“You could say Annette Kellerman kicked off the contemporary swimsuit for women,” Traill-Nash says.

“She gave them an example of someone … wearing something that was practical, that gave them freedom of movement.”

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