Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Frustrations and Complications of Intimacy

Lynn Nottage, the author of Intimate Apparel, deliberately places a bed in every scene. This choice demonstrates the centrality of intimacy in the play—a motif that is ironic at times, as the characters repeatedly experience distance in relationships that are expected to be close. Neither George nor Esther actually write the letters they send, and both rely on others to correspond; the letters they write back and forth while George is in Panama are shared with other people. From the beginning of their relationship, therefore, George and Esther lack the emotional connection they might have found in private correspondence. Additionally, George and Esther’s physical intimacy disappears when George refuses to sleep with Esther and visits a prostitute not long after their wedding. Nottage suggests through Esther’s story that, though marriage connotes close physical and emotional relationships, it does not always provide them.

Two of Esther’s clients—Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme—experience a lack of intimacy in their relationships as well. Mrs. Van Buren lacks physical closeness with her husband and tries in vain to earn his interest with intimate apparel she purchases from Esther. Mayme, on the other hand, is emotionally distant from George: though they are sleeping together, she doesn’t realize that the new man in her life is her friend’s husband.

Despite or perhaps because of the fact that the characters in the play lack intimacy in the relationships where it would be expected, they seek and find intimacy in unexpected or unconventional places. While refusing to sleep with Esther, George visits Mayme; while emotionally distant from George, Esther connects with Mr. Marks, with whom she cannot have a romantic relationship. Additionally, the women in this story forge emotional connections with each other: for example, they help Esther write to George and support each other in their life struggles and relationship complications. In all of this, Nottage demonstrates the challenges that come with physical and emotional connections and suggests that intimacy doesn’t only pertain to marriage.

The Destructive Potential of Romantic Relationships

At the beginning of the play, Esther longs for a husband as she sews for her clients and watches them get married. However, Esther and the other female characters of the play experience the potentially harmful effects of romantic relationships. When Esther begins corresponding with George, she believes she has found in their relationship the intimacy she has always longed for. While their marriage begins well enough, George quickly begins to neglect Esther and ends up demanding the money she had saved for years, gambling the money away and cheating on her by sleeping with a prostitute. At the end of the play, Esther returns to the women’s boardinghouse pregnant and abandoned by her husband.

George’s mistreatment of Esther leads to tension in Esther’s relationship with Mayme as well: Esther is hurt to discover that George gave the smoking jacket she had given him on their wedding night to Mayme, and Mayme is heartbroken to discover that the man she was falling in love with is Esther’s husband. Mrs. Van Buren also experiences heartbreak from her marriage, as her husband loses interest in her because she cannot conceive.

For Esther, Mayme, and Mrs. Van Buren, romance seems to lead only to suffering. In the midst of these struggles, however, the women in Intimate Apparel support each other and find intimacy in friendship, suggesting that sometimes the most important and fulfilling relationships in life are those shared with friends.

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Act and Scene Summaries