Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage

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Act 1, Scenes 1–3 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104

Scene 1

It is 1905. Esther, a "rather plain" African American woman of thirty-five, is sitting in her room in Lower Manhattan, trimming a camisole with lace on a sewing machine. 

Mrs. Dickson, her fifty-year-old landlady, enters the room laughing and begins telling Esther how much Mr. Charles admired the bread pudding Esther made. She also mentions that he has recently been promoted to head bellman at the hotel where he works. Esther is unimpressed, suggesting he is too generous about the unremarkable pudding and noting that "he still fetching luggage," even if he is now wearing a cashmere suit. 

Mrs. Dickson accepts Esther's disinterest—for now—and compliments the camisole. Esther explains that it is for Corinna Mae's wedding night. The party in celebration of this wedding is happening downstairs as they speak. Mrs. Dickson complains that Esther has been in her room all evening and asks her to come down and dance, but Esther contends that she cannot find her "party face." Her thirty-fifth birthday recently went unnoticed by those around her, and Esther is keenly aware that she is plain. She has seen twenty-two girls from this boarding house be married since she arrived at age seventeen, and she struggles to be pleased for Corinna Mae. 

Mrs. Dickson argues that there are men interested in Esther's smile and brings up Mr. Charles again. When Esther dismisses him once more, Mrs. Dickson points out that her husband was "near sixty" and an opiate addict when she married him; nevertheless, they have had a good life together, and Esther should not be so "particular." She refuses to take the camisole to Corinna Mae and insists that Esther must come down and deliver it herself, saying that today is Corinna Mae's day and Esther must "toast her as she'd toast you." 

Mrs. Dickson then remembers that a letter has arrived for Esther from a Mr. George Armstrong, whom Esther doesn't know. She hasn't time to read the letter to Esther now, but she will do so tomorrow. In the meantime, she bids Esther join the party. 

The scene shifts to George, who reads his letter to Esther aloud. George explains that he is a Barbadian laborer who works with Carson, the son of Esther's deacon, in Panama. He asks if he might write to Esther to fend off his boredom. 

Scene 2

The setting is the "elegant boudoir" of Mrs. Van Buren, an attractive white woman who is changing behind a screen. She tells Esther that she feels "exposed" in the lingerie Esther has made, but when Esther says it is exactly what she made for "that singer," Mrs. Van Buren emerges and says she will keep it as it is. 

As Esther laces her corset, Mrs. Van Buren bemoans her situation. She is trying to draw the attention of her husband and feels like "a tart from the Tenderloin." Esther tells her that corsets of this kind are all the rage in France and that some women don't even wear corsets when in private now.

Mrs. Van Buren pours a snifter of brandy and wonders what her mother would have said about her situation if she could have seen it. When Esther touches her waist, she takes notice of it and distractedly asks whether all the beading is necessary. Esther discusses the addition of the beading, and Mrs. Van Buren suggests she may wear the corset—which she now approves of—under her dress at that night's Gardenia Ball. She confesses that she has been dreading the event, knowing that the gathered company will undoubtedly ask when she is going to have a child. When asked if she has any children, Esther replies she has never been married. Mrs. Van Buren confides that she has given her husband no children. Though he has now turned to "other interests," Mrs. Van Buren does not want to be a divorcée and cannot leave him. 

Esther says she doubts she will ever marry—but then confesses that a man has "taken an interest" in her and that he is from Panama. When she says she cannot read, Mrs. Van Buren asks to see the letter and excitedly declares that George has "lovely penmanship." She offers to help Esther write back to him. 

At first Esther demurs, saying she has nothing to tell him about her life in the rooming house sewing "intimate apparel," but Mrs. Van Buren asks her what sort of things she likes to do. Finally convinced, Esther begins to talk, and her thoughts wander to Mr. Marks, her Orthodox Jewish clothier. 

The scene shifts to George, who is responding to Esther’s letter. He says he has written twice while waiting for her letter to arrive and describes the difficulty of his existence in elaborate and erudite terms. He wonders whether the Panama Canal project, which seems impossible, will ever be completed. Esther's letter has brought him great joy, and he calls it "the most splendid thing," vowing to keep it in his pocket. 

Scene 3

Esther visits Mr. Marks, her clothier, in his tenement flat. He shows Esther some beautiful Japanese silk and says he will give her his leftover two yards for free to make something for herself—or "for your gentleman." 

Blushing, Esther denies that she has a “gentleman” and says Mr. Marks has "distracted her" and that he always induces her to buy something she doesn't need. Mr. Marks explains that he likes to share "quality" with his favorite customers and that he likes Esther's taste, which is different from other people's. When he saw the Japanese silk at the docks, he thought of Esther, who is "blessed" with the needle, at once. 

As they converse, they notice at the same time that Mr. Marks is missing a button. Their exchange is subtly flirtatious, and there is a clear unspoken attraction between the two. 

Esther tells Mr. Marks she had to learn to sew for her livelihood, but Mr. Marks says that while his father and brother both sew, they don't have Esther's talent. He smiles as he watches her smell and touch the fabric, which Esther says she wants to buy even if she must "go without sugar for a week." Mr. Marks tells her, "It makes you happy, it makes me happy," at which point, Esther impulsively grabs his hand and is surprised when he pulls it away. 

Mr. Marks explains that, according to rabbinical law, he is not allowed to touch any woman other than a wife or a relative. He reveals to Esther that he is engaged to a woman in Romania whom he has never actually met.

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Act 1, Scenes 4–6 Summary