Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The protagonist of Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel is thirty-five-year-old Esther Mills, a talented African American seamstress living in Manhattan in 1905. She makes intimate apparel for both black and white women who range from wealthy socialites to prostitutes. Esther herself remains unmarried but longs to find a husband. She also hopes to open her own beauty parlor for black women, but she has been saving money for eighteen years and is no closer to realizing her dream.

At the beginning of the play, Esther tells her landlady, an African American woman named Mrs. Dickson, that she is tired of sewing for other people’s weddings when she has not had one of her own. Mrs. Dickson gives Esther a letter from a Barbadian man named George Armstrong. He has written to her from Central America, where he is working on the Panama Canal.

Esther visits her white patron, Mrs. Van Buren, who laments to Esther that she is unable to conceive a child and that her husband has a mistress. Because Esther cannot read or write, Mrs. Van Buren writes back to George for Esther, and he returns her letter. Later, Esther visits with Mayme, another of her clients and an African American prostitute, who helps Esther write another letter to George. Though corresponding with George, Esther is also clearly attracted to Mr. Marks, her fabric supplier and a handsome Orthodox Jewish man—but Marks cannot marry a non-Jewish woman and is engaged to a Romanian woman he has not met. Esther receives letters from George that state that he craves “a gentlewoman’s touch.”

George proposes marriage to Esther in the course of their correspondence, and they marry when he arrives in New York. On their wedding night, Esther gives George a silk smoking jacket that she made. She soon finds that George is dismissive of her idea of opening a beauty salon. Esther gives George, who has not yet found a job, money to buy a drink, and he asks her to give him all the money she has saved so that he can purchase a stable. She refuses to give it to him.

Esther visits Mrs. Van Buren, who reveals that she is attracted to Esther when she kisses her. Esther becomes upset and leaves. While visiting Mayme, Esther finds that she has the smoking jacket that Esther gave George on their wedding night and understands that he has been seeing Mayme. Mayme has not realized that the man she has been seeing is George. 

George, still angry that Esther will not give him money, refuses to sleep with her. She eventually gives him her savings, hoping he will sleep with her if she does, but he wants to go out instead. Esther and George admit that neither of them wrote the letters they sent to each other. 

When Esther explains the situation to Mayme, Mayme returns the smoking jacket and agrees to stop seeing George. Esther gives the jacket to Mr. Marks instead; she smoothes out the fabric when he tries it on, and he does not shy away, though his religion prohibits him from touching women he is not related or married to. At the end of the play, Esther—who appears to be pregnant—returns to Mrs. Dickson and her boardinghouse and begins to sew a new quilt.

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Act and Scene Summaries