The brief

The original woollen mermaid: Annette Kellerman

The original woollen mermaid: Annette Kellerman

2nd year QUT fashion design students have an opportunity to reinterpret the one-piece bathing suit for the 21st century using a technologically advanced wool/lycra textile in classic black. This project will introduce new skills: how to work with stretch fabrics and design and construct swimsuits that fit the body like a second skin.

A swimsuit is a swimsuit is a swimsuit.

Research question: What innovative approaches to designing a black one-piece swimsuit can produce something new and exciting?

Just like the ‘Little Black Dress’ the ‘Little Black Swimsuit’ is:

‘Worn to flatter or adorn, to be demure or sexy, modest or shameless, sophisticated or minimalist. As she slips into her little black dress, a woman is touched by the spirit of fashion – playing on what may be, keeping you guessing, or maybe lying …’ (Ludot 2001: 5)

Like Chanel’s ‘Little Black Dress’, the black swimsuit underpins a minimalist aesthetic that requires an exceptional cut, clever trims and flawless construction. It is an opportunity for designers to dazzle with a level of creativity and virtuosity – to craft a swimsuit that reflects both their signature style and the design inspiration for this brief. It is about invention – reinvention.

Textiles: Woollen Mermaids

In the early 20th century most swimsuits were produced in wool – in part due to its ability to reveal less of the body when wet. There was early experimentation with developing rib-like knits that were more elastic – followed by the use of Lastex – a rubber yarn that created a garment with less sag and drag. In the 21st century, advances in textile technology have resulted in the development of wool jersey fabrics with a high compression Lycra component. The swimsuits designed for this exhibition will be made in a fine wool/lycra jersey. It articulates the technological importance of performance textiles to fashioning a modern garment, whilst acknowledging the importance of wool as a yarn to Australia and the swimsuit’s history.

NB:    A par two is required

Background

Annette Kellerman on a poster for WHAT?

Annette Kellerman on a poster for WHAT?

Annette Kellerman, (1886-1975) was the ‘Australian Mermaid’, the ‘Diving Venus’ and the “Perfect Woman’. Through a career as a long distance swimmer, diver, vaudeville performer and silent movie star she became a global identity associated with glamour and physical beauty. She was the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel, and swam her way across Europe and the United States. Kellerman was a controversial individual. She was allegedly arrested for indecency preparing to swim along the coastline at Revere Beach, Boston in 1907 and expressed her independence and self-possession through bodily spectacle in daring swimsuits styled on the existing one-piece swimsuit design for men.

There were initially no modifications made to the original, masculine design; no structuring to the contours of a woman’s body, in particular the breast area, and it would not be until the 1930s that designers would feminise the swimsuit, and new technology would assist the development of textiles that would enhance its fit and performance. Kellerman’s innovation was revealing the female body, which had been concealed beneath layers of clothes and corsets for centuries in the public arena. She was a role-model for women, encouraging self-motivation and self-development. Kellerman extolled the virtues of exercise and a healthy diet to shape the body naturally. In 1918 her book, Physical Beauty: How to Keep It was published, and it promised that through a series of simple daily exercises in the home, every woman could achieve a level of physical beauty that was essential to the wearing of a body hugging  one-piece swimsuit with confidence. As a prototypical Hollywood star she prefigured the celebrity culture focused on the body that has predominated since then.

Muscling in on the Action – The Male response to Woollen Mermaids

Historically, a man unlike a woman in a swimsuit is not page three news; however, physically beautiful men in swimsuits appeared in Hoyningen-Heuné’s photographs from the 1920s in poses that highlighted their finely-tuned muscles, hinting at a potent sexuality. In the 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood stars adorned in swimsuits were used to promote studios, their pictures and swimsuit manufacturers’ products, and Johnny Weissmuller was ‘a swimmer and hearthrob’ who undoubtedly enhanced the fashioning of the male body when stripped to either a loin cloth or swimming trunks.

The Speedo has played a role in glorifying the male body via men’s swimwear, initially through competitive swimming participants such as Mark Spitz in the 1970s. Spitz sported the briefest cut swimsuit at the Munich Olympics and cemented associations between a sporting alpha male and the Speedo in flashy style. aussieBum has taken the Speedo one step further in the noughties with the introduction of internal structuring to bolster the crotch bulge, and Daniel Craig as the latest James Bond, has created a distinctly different characterization of 007 that includes a buffed, muscled body.  One of the more memorable scenes in Casino Royale is Craig emerging from the water in a pair of tight, pale blue La Perla swimming trunks. As a result of the continuing exposure of the male body, fashion trends in swimsuits for men are extending beyond a pair of racing briefs or baggy shorts.

Australia’s early contribution has come a long way, with the word ‘Speedo’ now included in most dictionaries to define a pair of fitting, male swimming trunks. Peter Travis as the designer of Speedo in the late 1950s was convinced the real breakthrough was to design briefer trunks that were more functional, focusing on the hip as the stable point of the male body as opposed to the waist. In Travis’ opinion, Australia was positioned to do something better than copy overseas designers’ work and he determined to develop a uniquely Australian style – a style now globally recognized as the standard in men’s swimwear. Today as men embrace fashion-forward swimsuits.

The brief

Students who choose to design a men’s swimsuit will create a design conversation that responds to the Woollen Mermaid brief shifting the focus to the male body and men’s swimsuit design. The men’s swimsuit was initially based on a simple one- or two-piece with boy-leg – a styling that has been revisited in collections such as Red Carter’s 2009 at Miami Swim Week and the Borat mankini that made its way to catwalk in the Dolce et Gabbana 2008 collection– although it was referred to as a ‘low point’! Where to now?

4 responses to “The brief

  1. Please listen and take note,
    Peter Travis did not design the Speedo.
    Despite the references to his doing this here and on other web sites, Travis simply added a fashion element to the body-fitting racing swim brief that Speedo had already developed in 1955. This design, which used a new synthetic fibre (nylon) instead of the woven woollen materials that had been used prior to that time, was worn by the Australian competitive swimmers in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. They won bagsful of medals and effectively launched the modern Speedo onto the world’s beaches and pools. Forget that rubbish about hips and waists: because these swim suits were made of a lightweight fabric that clung when wet, Speedos fitted whatever part of the body they touched. They thus got rid of the issues of weight that made the older woven suits heavy when wet, which in turn required waist straps etc.
    Travis is a natural self-promoter who actually worked for just two years at Speedo (1958-60). He convinced Speedo Knitting Mills to use printed fabrics instead of the plain club-stype colours previously used. But the fact is that he no more designed (or invented!!) what the world knows today as Speedos than Jeffrey Archer invented the modern spy novel.
    OK?

  2. Hi Paul

    You raise some interesting questions that I would like to address. However, firstly I would make it clear that there is no mention of Peter Travis inventing the Speedo swimming trunks. Travers is attributed with improving the cut of the trunks during the two years he worked for the company, and I for one, am prepared to believe his first-hand account of this contribution.

    What is significant is the concept of invention.

    Costume historians regularly credit Annette Kellerman with inventing the one-piece swimsuit for women. However, technically it was a pre-existing man’s one-piece bathing suit that she wore – therefore fiction rather than fact. Kellerman did not design the one-piece bathing – she popularised it. Further, she was a highly skilled self-promoter, an essential ingredient of successful individuals.

    Chanel is a high-profile example of a self-promoter who fashion historian Valerie Steele reports: ‘lived to tell generations of journalists that she alone was responsible for putting women in skirts and sweaters’ (Steele 1992: 120). A number of important designers including Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin and Vionnet were influential contributors to fashion design in the early 20th century alongside Chanel, however, do not receive due recognition, outperformed by the media savvy Chanel. This does not diminish Chanel’s contribution, rather highlights the importance of the media to creating a fashion narrative. So, if as you say, Travis is a natural self-promoter, this is hardly a crime or a negative attribute for a fashion designer.

    As to Speedos, no one designer can be attributed with the design. It was an evolutionary process that involved other designers, including Gloria Smythe and elite swimmers who trialled the swimsuits and provided feedback prior to finalising the prototypes. The fact that you note that Travis moved Speedo towards prints does suggest that he was an innovative designer.

    Moving into the 21st century, the question is how do fashion designers create anything new, when all the foundation garments including the Speedo trunks are a standard block? Well, aussieBum have tweaked the cut, applied innovative prints and created ‘pouch’ technology, a design concept that may be argued is gimmicky, yet has found success with wearers globally. La Perla referenced the classic 1960s trunk that was popularised by Daniel Craig. So the fashion story goes on …..

  3. Pingback: Water Wench Wednesday | The Scuttlefish

  4. Pingback: Lost in the Closet: Jantzen Swimsuit and the Cult of the Mermaid | Theatre of Fashion

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