Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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.