Shell-adorned bikini tops. Fishtail skirts. Starfish accessories. Seafoam-green eyeshadow. Expect to see all of this and more riding the waves of Disney’s latest live-action blockbuster, The Little Mermaid.
In other words, “mermaidcore”—the personification of aquatic glamour and physical beauty—is back.
Since antiquity, mermaids have embodied our fantasies of the briny deep. Inscrutable, various and generally scantily clad, these half-fish, half-woman mythological creatures are shapeshifting female figures known the world over, from the sirens of the Aegean, to the jiaoren of the South China Sea, to Africa’s Mami Wata, often traced to the coast of Guinea. Historical accounts of mermaid sightings continued to flourish on through the 1800s. While none ever produced a real mermaid, hoaxes like P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee mermaid”—a Frankenstein-ed monkey head sewn onto a fish’s tail—were plentiful, capturing the public’s attention and coin.
But as the industrial revolution’s rising tide traded wonder for rationality, “real” reports from the ocean began to quiet. Rather than disappear into myth, mermaids performed their next act of transformation: moving from the water to the stage and silent screen. The early 1900s productions that resulted popularized what I’d argue to be the first mermaidcore. And the skimpier and transgressive fashions inspired by them played a tangible role in helping girls and women traverse societal barriers in style and sport.
Of all the early mermaid tales, it was Neptune’s Daughter that might have captured the public imagination the most. Staged in the Hippodrome, the famed New York theater that boasted a stage 12 times larger than its Broadway counterparts, the show was an instant hit when it debuted in late 1906. Audiences flocked to see the actresses playing mermaids dive into an 8,000-gallon clear tank filled with water. People were astounded by how they were able to stay underwater for so long. While the “day of miracles and the belief in miracles is past,” as one reporter commented, the theatrical effect in Neptune’s Daughter kept the illusion intact. To maintain the fantasy, rehearsals were conducted with utmost secrecy, with management threatening to fire anyone who gave away the gimmick (submarine chambers) that allowed actresses to linger below the surface. Such precautions paid off. “No spectacular invention or innovation of recent years has aroused such popular interest or awakened such widespread curiosity as the mermaid scene,” observed the New York Times.
A silent film production of Neptune’s Daughter followed in 1914, shot on location in Bermuda, and starring champion swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman, “the Australian Mermaid.”
Swimming, long considered a masculine domain, had opened up to women relatively early in Kellerman’s home nation. Around the 1830s, middle-class women swam recreationally, and by the time a young Kellerman entered the pool at 9 years old, a burgeoning competitive scene had started up. Because Kellerman was bowlegged, her parents had put her in swimming lessons as a form of physical therapy. While she was weak on land, in the water, she found she was athletic and graceful. She began winning swimming and diving titles against girls and boys. By the time she made her way to the U.S., in 1906, she had already attempted to swim across the English Channel and was well on her way to achieving international fame.
But when Kellerman arrived in America, she found women’s swimming culture was stuck in Victorian times. Because there was no long-distance swimming to be had, she first made money doing water stunts in vaudeville performances. She also began campaigning to change American swimwear. As she reasoned, if women wanted to enter the pool, they first needed the freedom to abandon the cumbersome bathing costume of wool skirts, blouses, stockings and swim shoes that was literally weighing them down.
The best costume is the cheap, ordinary stockinette suit, which clings close to the figure, and the closer the better. It should be sleeveless, and there should be no skirts. Skirts carry water and retard the swimmer. They are very pretty and appropriate for the seaside, but not for the swimming pool. Stockings may be worn if they fit tightly, but under no circumstances should shoes be used.
That excerpt comes from the 1907 article “Swimming Hints,” one of many editorials Kellerman wrote to encourage more women and girls to lose their bulky swim costumes and adopt a modern one-piece swimsuit.
But perhaps nothing did more to change the conversation than her mermaid motion pictures.
Kellerman made her U.S. film debut in 1911, starring in two Vitagraph shorts, “The Mermaid” and “Siren of the Sea,” which catapulted her to stardom. Because the fantasy scenes she starred in filtered her form-fitting swimwear “through a fictional layer,” as author Christine Schmidt put it in her 2013 book The Swimsuit: Fashion From Poolside to Catwalk, Kellerman was able to transcend the norms of the day. Through her mermaid persona, the star could help neutralize “any suggestion of indecency” that her outfits might have otherwise engendered had she appeared in them on screen.
The public watched with fascination. Kellerman was heralded by the press at the time as being “the most perfectly formed woman in the world.” And an audience hungry to be just like her followed her every move, eager to copy everything about her, including, in time, the trademark “Annette Kellerman suit.”
By 1914, the very same year Kellerman starred in Neptune’s Daughter, America’s premier amateur sporting league, the Amateur Athletic Union, officially permitted “mermaids,” as they called competitive female swimmers, to participate in sanctioned competitions. And by the time Kellerman’s film career wound down a decade later, most women were starting to wear the same one-piece “Kellerman suits” the star first championed at the turn of the century.
Mermaidcore, of course, wasn’t alone in opening up the waters for women, but it undeniably lent its sparkle to the cause, paving the way for them to transform their reality on land. This glamour can continue to offer us a way to shapeshift today through fantasy. After all, as Kellerman once put it, to become a mermaid is to simply “see a woman make a fish out of herself.”