Intimate Apparel | Study Guide

Lynn Nottage

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Course Hero. "Intimate Apparel Study Guide." April 24, 2020. Accessed August 14, 2022.


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Intimate Apparel | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram



Intimate Apparel is set in Lower Manhattan in 1905. All the action takes place in bedrooms, either in Mrs. Dickson's rooming house, a client's house, or a one-room apartment.

Act 1

Esther is a 35-year-old African American seamstress who makes intimate apparel for women. Since she was 17 Esther has been living and working in her room at Mrs. Dickson's rooming house. She saves $100 a year, sewing it into her brightly colored patchwork quilt. She plans to open a beauty parlor someday—a place black women can go to be pampered like Esther's rich white clients. Every Sunday Esther attends church. Every Tuesday she visits Mr. Marks, a fabric salesman, to buy material for the elegant corsets and other undergarments she creates. Mr. Marks is an orthodox Jew from Romania. He and Esther share a love for fine fabrics and the stories that accompany them. They love each other as well but believe they cannot be together.

One day, Mrs. Dickson brings Esther a letter. It's from a Barbadian construction laborer, George Armstrong, who is working on the Panama Canal. The letter begins a monthslong correspondence. Esther can't read or write, so she relies on two of her clients—a wealthy white society wife, Mrs. Van Buren, and a black prostitute, Mayme. These women read her George's letters and write Esther's replies. George's letters feature poetic language and delicate emotional responses to his work, his surroundings, and Esther's letters. Eventually, George proposes marriage, and Esther accepts. He immigrates to New York, and they marry.

Act 2

On their wedding night Esther wants to get to know George before they go to bed, but he is not much of a conversationalist. She gives him a wedding present she made for him—a smoking jacket of hand-embroidered red silk, but he seems uninterested. George becomes increasingly distant. He can't find construction work, so he lives off Esther's income and savings. He resents the site bosses because they turn him away, and he resents Esther because he has to beg her for money. She suggests other sources of work, but he resists her suggestions. He goes out every night and refuses to accompany Esther to church or social events. One day Mayme tells Esther she's met someone and may be getting married. Mayme shows Esther a gift from her new lover. It's George's red silk smoking jacket.

George hears about a stable with a dozen horses for sale and dreams of becoming a wealthy stable owner. He flirtatiously cajoles Esther into giving him her life savings so he can buy the business. As soon as he has the money, he begins counting it into a bag. He doesn't even thank her. He leaves to buy the horses, promising to come back, but he never returns. The next morning Mayme tells Esther that George gambled all the money away. She gives Esther the smoking jacket. Sometime later Esther visits Mr. Marks for the first time in months. She gives him the smoking jacket—a gift that surprises and delights him. Esther moves back into her room at Mrs. Dickson's boarding house and immediately begins making another patchwork quilt.

Intimate Apparel Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Esther exchanges letters with a stranger in Panama, George.

Rising Action

2 In a letter George proposes marriage, and Esther accepts.

3 As a wedding gift Esther gives George a silk smoking jacket.

4 Jobless and resentful, George begins an affair with Mayme.

5 Esther discovers that George gave Mayme the smoking jacket.

6 George gambles away Esther's savings, which she gave him.


7 Esther convinces Mayme that George is a danger to them both.

Falling Action

8 Esther gives Mr. Marks the silk smoking jacket.


9 Esther moves back into Mrs. Dickson's rooming house.

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