Intimate Apparel | Study Guide

Lynn Nottage

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Intimate Apparel | Symbols



Beds represent the characters' dreams and aspirations. Each scene in the play features a bed of some sort. They are seldom used for lovemaking, however. Instead, dreams surround them. In her newly painted boudoir, Mrs. Van Buren confides to Esther her ambition to conceive a child and find love. Mayme lounges on her bed as she tells Esther about her dreams of becoming a pianist. Esther herself covers her bed with a quilt stuffed with her savings, with which she dreams of establishing a beauty parlor for black women. Even George sits on the bed with Esther talking of dreams—of buying a stable and becoming a respected member of New York society.

Only Mr. Marks's room does not contain a proper bed—just a bedroll. He folds it up and stashes it to one side. He keeps his dreams private and carefully controlled by the tenets of his religion and the traditions of his culture.


Corsets, which often feature in the play, symbolize intimate relationships between men and women. Wedding corsets tend to be white and delicately trimmed. They hint at a relationship characterized by innocent emotions and gentleness. The corsets worn by Mayme, in contrast, are boldly colored and elaborately decorated. They suggest the wild, passionate lovemaking of illicit affairs. When Mrs. Van Buren and Esther hope to reinvigorate their marriages, they look to the latter sort of corset to inspire their husbands' interest.

However, despite their artistic design and fine materials, they are meant to—and do—constrict women, keeping them uncomfortably bound. Thus they also represent the restrictions and limitations placed on women who must wear them.


In Intimate Apparel the letters between George and Esther represent miscommunication. They are false representations of their senders' true character. George and Esther both are illiterate and have found others to write their letters for them. Because it is not their writing, even the penmanship in the letters is a misrepresentation. Moreover, the actual writers of the letters influence their contents. From his letters George seems to be religious, poetic, and compassionate, but he turns out to be the opposite. Esther's letters have been written by a lonely white society wife and an artistic black prostitute. In reality Esther is not as needy, sophisticated, or wanton as her letters might suggest.

The Silk Smoking Jacket

The silk smoking jacket Esther gives George as a wedding present symbolizes romantic love. She means the gift as a pledge of lasting devotion. However, she made it for the man in the letters, and that man doesn't actually exist. In fact, George is bewildered by the gift, which has no place in his world of mud, hard physical labor, and rowdy nights. He tries it on hastily when pushed but pulls it off and casts it aside just quickly as he casts aside Esther's love. When he falls for Mayme, he gives the smoking jacket to her. Unlike George, Mayme cherishes the gift. However, when she realizes Esther made it, she also realizes it belongs to Esther and not to her. After all, Esther's love is not George's to give.

At the end of the play, Esther gives the smoking jacket to Mr. Marks. For him, as for Esther, the jacket has levels of meaning. He found the fabric and immediately thought of Esther. Both admire its intricate embroidery and are fascinated by its provenance. Just as Esther appreciates Mr. Marks's efforts in finding the fabric, he appreciates her fine craftsmanship in turning it into a piece of intimate apparel. Thus, the smoking jacket embodies a shared love between soul mates.

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