Intimate Apparel | Study Guide

Lynn Nottage

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Intimate Apparel | Themes


Social Constraints on Independence

The characters in Intimate Apparel all suffer from the constraints placed on them by society based on their race, class, and gender. Most of the characters are African American, and George is a black West Indian. In the first scene of the play, Mrs. Dickson tells Esther that Mr. Charles has been promoted to head bellman at a fancy hotel. She considers this a good position. Esther points out, however, that he's still carrying other people's luggage. In 1905, when the play is set, most African Americans ended up in service jobs. Even George, who worked building the Panama Canal, cannot find a job in construction in New York. Although he's young, strong, and experienced, the site chiefs hire older Europeans. But George won't settle for carrying other people's luggage, as he tells Esther in Act 2, Scene 2. "I want to build t'ings," he says, "not polish silver or port luggage." The black men in New York may settle for that, but he won't.

Class differences are explored largely through the relationship between Esther and Mrs. Van Buren. Mrs. Van Buren married a wealthy man. She lives in a big house and can hire Esther to make beautiful lingerie for her. She attends the opera and other social functions and doesn't have to work. In contrast, Esther works all the time, lives frugally, and saves as much money as she can. As she tells Mrs. Van Buren in Act 1, Scene 5, she has never even gone to a "colored show." The class differences between the two women are exacerbated by their races. Mrs. Van Buren finds the notion of being seen socially with Esther "marvelously scandalous," but she would not dare to do it. However, she feels comfortable with the idea of taking Esther to visit friends in Lenox, where Esther could get some extra work. She would be able to spend time with Esther, but their respective social roles would be preserved. Esther's dream of owning a beauty parlor where black women could be pampered just as white women are reflects her awareness of both the class and the racial divide.

Social restraints based on gender pose the greatest problem for the characters. The women are particularly limited as to how they support themselves. Both Mrs. Dickson and Mrs. Van Buren married men who could support them and would leave them financially secure. Mayme is a gifted composer and classically trained musician. Yet she must work as a prostitute because women were not taken seriously as composers and musicians in 1905. Being African American limits her still further. So Mayme composes and plays ragtime in a saloon, where she also finds her clients. As a seamstress, Esther is engaged in one of the few professions available to women. It is skilled work, and, as she tells George in Act 2, Scene 1, she was lucky to meet someone to teach her. Even George is affected by gender expectations. When he can't find work, he is forced to ask his wife for money, a situation he finds degrading. This feeling contributes to the disintegration of his marriage to Esther.

The Elusiveness of Intimacy

With the possible exception of George, the characters in Intimate Apparel are all searching for intimacy, whether through friendship or through romantic love. This issue first arises in the conversation between Esther and Mrs. Dickson that begins the play. Esther hopes to find real happiness with a man in marriage. She doesn't want to settle for financial security alone as represented by Mr. Charles, with his new promotion. George's letter, which Mrs. Dickson has brought her, seems to offer a potential source of intimacy. However, Esther's illiteracy prevents her from taking advantage of the opportunity. However, as Esther learns in Act 2, the letters are a false offer of intimacy. Both Esther and George use surrogates to read and write their letters. The apparent emotions and thoughts expressed in them are fictions invented by others.

Mayme and Mrs. Dickson both warn Esther that true intimacy is unlikely to come in the form of a happy marriage. Mrs. Dickson's marriage was a pragmatic one; intimacy for her comes in the form of friendship. She mothers the young women who live in her rooming house. Still, most of them move on, leaving her alone again. Mayme also mistrusts men as a source of intimacy. As she says in Act 1, Scene 4, men are always "pawing and pulling"; they are interested in women only for sexual gratification. Mayme's experience of men is different from Mrs. Van Buren's. Try as she may, the society wife gets neither emotional nor physical intimacy from her husband. Mayme enjoys the intimacy of her friendship with Esther but ultimately risks it for a man. Mrs. Van Buren also seeks intimacy with Esther, but her desire for sexual intimacy destroys any hope of a friendship with her.

The truest intimate relationship in the play is between Esther and Mr. Marks. They share a passion for beautiful fabrics and the stories behind them. They also share a devotion to their respective faiths. Both are generous and gentle, hardworking and frugal. Yet both believe in following rules, and rules prevent them from following their hearts. Mr. Marks is engaged to a woman in Romania he has never met. He will marry her because his parents have arranged the marriage, and he respects their traditions. As Esther tells Mayme in Act 1, Scene 4, she believes their racial and cultural differences prevent her and Mr. Marks from being together. As a black Christian man, George seems the more appropriate husband for her. Thus, despite their potential to find it, their own choices prevent Esther and Mr. Marks from achieving true intimacy.

Chasing the American Dream

The American dream refers to the way of life believed to be accessible to anyone in America who works hard and achieves success. George seems to have bought into the myth of the American dream while still in Panama. His last letter to Esther, in Act 1, Scene 5 reveals his impressions of America as "a wondrous place." In Act 2, Scene 2 he talks about the building everywhere around him as America grows. He's frustrated because he can't seem to become a part of that growth. When someone in a saloon tells him there's a stable for sale for a low price, George quickly conceives the notion of buying it with Esther's savings. He cajoles Esther into giving him the money by spinning a fanciful daydream in which the stable provides them both with financial security and social position. With money and position, they will also have a happy marriage.

Mayme and Esther share a brief daydream in Act 1, Scene 4, when Mayme imagines a life as a concert pianist. Unlike George, who seems to believe his own fantasies, if only for the time it takes to spin them, Mayme knows her dream cannot come true. Mayme will never live the artistic life she worked toward during her 12 years of studying piano. Her father beat that knowledge into her with his switch. Mayme has given up on the American dream.

Esther's ambition to open a beauty parlor for black women seems more realistic than George's or Mayme's dreams. It is less grand, and she has a clearer vision of it. She has also been saving up for it for nearly 20 years. Even after she succumbs to George's cajoling and gives him her savings to buy a stable, she does not give up. She has both hope and a determined work ethic—two ingredients necessary to chase the American dream.

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