Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage
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Last Updated on October 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

In her play Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage examines the complications of intimacy, both physical and emotional, through the story of Esther Mills, a black seamstress working in New York around the turn of the twentieth century. The play’s title refers to Esther’s trade: she sews intimate apparel for women. At the beginning of the play, this title represents the irony of Esther’s situation, as she is not yet married. She dreams of the emotional and physical relationship that she could share with a husband as she attends the weddings of her clients. 

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When Esther receives a letter from a man named George, who is working on the Panama Canal, they begin a relationship that feigns intimacy. Esther, who is illiterate, does not write the letters herself, but must receive help from other women in her life. As is revealed later in the play, George does not actually write his letters either. Thus, at the time they are married, George and Esther have not experienced a private relationship, because others have been involved in it the entire time. Even after Esther and George are married, they remain distant: George laughs at Esther’s dream of opening a beauty parlor, demands her money, and cheats on her with a prostitute, all of which compromise any physical or emotional intimacy they might have had. 

The one male figure with whom Esther experiences a close emotional connection is Mr. Marks, the Jewish man who sells her fabric. The two share common interests and discuss them often together. Their relationship is hardly physical: near the beginning of the play, Esther touches Marks’s hand, but he pulls away, explaining his religious beliefs to her. As an Orthodox Jew, Marks cannot touch a woman he is not related or married to. However, near the end, Marks does not shy away when Esther smoothes down the fabric of his jacket, thereby allowing a physical intimacy of sorts. Despite the emotional connection the two share, any further development of the relationship between Esther and Marks is impossible: Marks is engaged to a Jewish woman in Romania whom he has never met, and his religion prevents him from marrying a non-Jewish woman.

While Esther’s relationships with George and Marks are distant, she does find intimacy with her female friends and clients. As their seamstress, Esther enters their bedrooms, and they tell her about their relationships, dreams, and fears. These women include the white socialite Mrs. Van Buren, who tells Esther the details of her troublesome marriage and her husband’s growing indifference toward her, and the black prostitute Mayme, who laments the harsh treatment she receives from clients.

In this play, the pieces Esther sews serve as symbols for the relationships she forms with the people in her life. These garments allow her access to the private aspects of her clients’ lives, as is symbolized by the fact that she gives her clients fittings in their bedrooms at home. Additionally, the smoking jacket Esther sews for George serves as a symbol of their romantic relationship: at first, when George rejects it and gives it away, it is a symbol of the distance in their marriage. But when Esther gives it to Mr. Marks at the end of the play, it becomes a symbol of the connection she has—or wishes she could have—with him. Ultimately, the apparel Esther makes allows her to express her intimacy with others.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189

Playwright Lynn Nottage recommends sparse scenery for Intimate Apparel, a two-act play that flows from beginning to end with few blackouts or pauses. While the play employs realist narrative conventions, its locations shift quickly, sometimes within the same scene. The first scene depicts Esther, a seamstress, making a gown for a girl who is getting married downstairs. Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s landlady, enters and asks her to come down to the party. Esther, who has just turned thirty-five, lets slip her bitterness at seeing so many girls get married when she cannot find a man. Mrs. Dickson offers to set her up on a date, but Esther refuses. Mrs. Dickson gives her a letter from George Armstrong, a man unknown to either of them. The scene shifts to George dictating his letter, recounting his experience digging the Panama Canal and requesting permission to continue writing to Esther.

In scene 2, Esther delivers a corset to Mrs. Van Buren, an upper-class white woman. Mrs. Van Buren discusses her discomfort at being asked why she does not have children, having been unable to conceive. She also believes that her husband has a mistress. Esther talks about her own lack of a husband and shows her client the letter from George. Mrs. Van Buren insists on helping Esther write a reply, and then George is shown talking about the difficulties with the canal and the comfort he received from Esther’s letter.

Scene 3 opens with Esther visiting Mr. Marks, her fabric supplier. He tries to sell her some Japanese silk, and there is an obvious attraction between them. She grasps his hand, but he pulls it away, telling her about his betrothed in Romania, whom he has never met. Jewish law forbids him from touching any other woman.

In scene 4, Esther delivers a corset to Mayme, a prostitute. Esther tells her about George and also about her dream of opening a beauty parlor with the money she has been hiding in the lining of her quilt. Esther lets Mayme read one of George’s letters, in which he has asked what she looks like. Mayme insists on helping Esther write the response. In another letter, George tells Esther that her letters are helping him fight off sin.

Scene 5 starts in Esther’s bedroom, where Mrs. Dickson warns her that George writes too often and that she should not trust him. She tears up George’s most recent letter. The scene then shifts to Mr. Marks’s shop, where Esther asks why he always wears black clothing, and he explains his Jewish traditions. She touches his collar, and he does not pull back. The scene shifts again to Mrs. Van Buren’s bedroom. Mrs. Van Buren’s husband spat at her the night before for not being pregnant. Esther tells her of her encounter with Mr. Marks and helps adjust her corset. Mrs. Van Buren reveals her own attraction toward Esther. George is shown writing another letter, in which he acknowledges his fear of death and his dreams for the future. He asks Esther to marry him.

In scene 6, Esther has accepted George’s proposal and is asking Mayme to be a witness. Mayme is wary of going into a church and refuses. Esther then goes to her room, where Mrs. Dickson helps her pack. She gives Esther advice about the wedding night and pleasing her husband, telling Esther not to let George hit her. George is seen writing a letter in Cuba on his way to New York City. Esther goes to Mr. Marks’s shop and looks for fabric for her wedding dress. Mr. Marks is clearly disappointed to hear that she is getting married, but he gives her the fabric free of charge. The scene shifts, as all the characters come out and perform some everyday business, until most of them exit, leaving Esther and George face to face for the first time, as they are married.

Act 2 begins with George and Esther awkwardly talking in their bedroom after the wedding. She tries to divert his intentions by asking him about his family. She also gives him a smoking jacket that she has made out of Japanese silk. He tries it on but is uncomfortable in it. He grows tired of Esther’s diversions, and they consummate the marriage. As they are getting dressed afterward, Mayme appears and asks Esther how it was.

In scene 2, Esther mends George’s shirt and tries to convince him to go to a church social at Mrs. Dickson’s. He has not found a job yet and wants to go get a drink instead. She gives him some money, but he asks her to give him all of the quilt money so that he can buy a stable. He also laughs at her plan to open a beauty shop. Esther goes to see Mr. Marks, who sells her some wool to make a suit, and they share a moment together. She reminds him of her marriage and says that she cannot come there anymore.

In scene 3, Esther visits Mrs. Van Buren, who is happy to have her husband out of town. Mrs. Van Buren remarks that they have not written any letters lately. Esther becomes upset at her inability to read George’s notes and letters and worries that she might not love George. Mrs. Van Buren kisses Esther, who becomes upset and leaves. The scene shifts to George coming to see Mayme, while Esther sits alone.

Scene 4 starts with Esther visiting Mayme, who is excited about a new man in her life. The man is married and has given her a nice gift: a smoking jacket made of Japanese silk. It is the one Esther gave George, and Esther becomes very uncomfortable. Esther asks Mayme what the wife must be feeling, but Mayme does not care. Back in her bedroom with George, Esther tries to become intimate with him, but he shrugs her off. She tells him to close his eyes and strips down to her intimate apparel, but he laughs at her. He becomes angry that she wants to sleep with him but will not give him the money for his stable. Thinking he will sleep with her if she gives him the money, she does so, but he decides to go out. They both reveal that they did not write the letters they sent each other.

In scene 5, Esther confronts Mayme, telling her that George has left her and found another woman, and that woman is Mayme. Mayme is shocked and gives Esther back the jacket. She tells Esther that George came to the saloon and gambled away all of Esther’s beauty parlor money. George knocks on Mayme’s door, and Esther tries to convince Mayme not to open it.

Scene 6 depicts Esther going to Mr. Marks and giving him the smoking jacket. She helps him try it on and smoothes out the wrinkles. He does not flinch. In the final scene, Esther goes to Mrs. Dickson, who is glad to have her back. As the lights fade, Esther indicates that she is pregnant. She begins to sew a new quilt.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108

Davis, Viola. “Corsets as Metaphor.” Interview by Simi Horwitz. Back Stage 45, no. 18 (April, 2004). Interview with the actress who played Esther in Intimate Apparel’s New York run.

Gener, Randy. “Conjurer of Worlds.” American Theatre 22, no. 8 (October, 2005). Discusses Lynn Nottage’s use of history in her plays.

Isherwood, Charles. “Intimate Apparel.” Review of Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. Variety 394, no. 10 (April, 2004). Review of the play’s Off-Broadway run.

Lahr, John. “Unnatural History.” The New Yorker 80, no. 9. Psychological discussion of the characters in the play.

Nottage, Lynn. “Out of East Africa.” American Theatre 22, no. 5 (May, 2005). Nottage’s account of a trip to Africa that influenced her view of the theater.

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