Intimate Apparel incorporates both feminist and racial commentary. Esther not only faces racial prejudice but also encounters obstacles presented by the gender roles into which her husband insists she must fit. Her dream of opening a beauty parlor is crushed when she accepts these gender roles, feeling that George needs the opportunity to make something of himself before she can. The ripping open of her quilt represents the destruction of her hopes.
These gender roles also hinder other characters, including Mrs. Van Buren, who feels pressure from her husband to bear children, and Mayme, who feels she can do little else but work as a prostitute. Esther and Mr. Marks also face racial prejudice and cultural stereotypes and traditions that prevent them from acting on their mutual attraction.