Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

That’s how many of these parties I have had to go to and play merry. I should be happy for them, I know, but each time I think, Why ain’t it me? 

Though she sews intimate apparel for other women’s marriages, seamstress Esther Mills is not yet married and longs for a husband. Esther hopes that after sewing for so many marriages, she will one day have her own. In the course of the play, Esther finds a husband; however, her marriage proves to be a disappointment.

Don’t think me too forward, but I thought it would be nice to have someone to think about, someone not covered head to toe in mud, someone to ward off this awful boredom. 

Intimacy, Esther believes, presents itself in the form of George Armstrong, a Barbadian man working on the Panama Canal who writes her a letter. George writes this to Esther in his first letter, in which he explains that he works alongside the son of a deacon at her church and asks if he may write to her to fend off boredom and, he implies, depression.

I live in a rooming house with seven unattached women and sew intimate apparel for ladies, but that ain’t for a gentleman’s eyes. Sure I can tell him anything there is to know about fabric, but that hardly seems a life worthy of words. 

Esther and George begin a correspondence that feigns intimacy; in reality, though, both receive help from others to write the letters. While visiting a client, Mrs. Van Buren, Esther expresses her reservations about writing to George. She feels that her life is not worth narrating and fears she will have nothing of interest to write to him. Esther is illiterate, so Mrs. Van Buren offers to write a reply to George for Esther.

He keeps a wealth of fabric in that apartment. He got everything you need, even things you don’t know you need—

While Esther feels that her job as a seamstress and her knowledge of fabric are not interesting enough to write to George about, they form the basis of her relationship with Mr. Marks, the Romanian Jewish man who sells her fabric. Both Marks and Esther appear to wish that their relationship could go beyond that of a client and supplier: they have feelings for each other but are prevented from having a romantic relationship due to Marks’s religion. It is interesting to note that Esther says this to Mrs. Van Buren while describing the things she likes to do in order to write a letter to George. Though she writes to and eventually marries George, Esther experiences greater emotional intimacy through common interests with Marks than she ever does with her husband.

They really do make me sick. Always stinking of booze. And look what he done. It’s the only pretty thing I own and look what he done. 

Mayme, an African American prostitute, dresses herself in beautiful garments that her clients sometimes destroy. Esther offers to repair Mayme’s robe, demonstrating her friendship with and care for her clients. Esther’s job as a seamstress allows her access into the private aspects of her friends’ and clients’ lives: in sewing for Mrs. Van Buren, for example, she hears of the frustrations in her marriage and of Mr. Van Buren’s neglect. In sewing for Mayme, she hears of the mistreatment Mayme receives from her clients. While George fails to provide Esther with the physical and emotional intimacy she longs for, the apparel Esther sews helps her form meaningful relationships with the women around her.

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