Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage wrote her first play when she was eight years old. As a young adult, she attended Brown University and went on to receive her MFA in playwriting from Yale. She spent several years as an international press officer for Amnesty International before transitioning to writing full-time in the 1990s. Her first full-length play to garner attention was Crumbs from the Table of Joy, which she wrote in 1995. Intimate Apparel is one of her best-known plays. After its California premiere, the play opened off-Broadway starring Viola Davis. It has since become one of the most produced plays in America. Her 2015 play Sweat gave Nottage her Broadway debut in 2017. In addition to writing plays, Nottage has participated in multimedia installations, written for television, and co-founded the production company Market Road Films. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.
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Historical Context of Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel touches on a number of events and social movements happening around the turn of the century. It mentions the construction of the Panama Canal by the U.S., which begun in 1904 and took eleven years to complete. Work on the canal was a deadly prospect, especially for a black person like George. An estimated 4,500 black workers died of tropical diseases after 1904, and under French control between 1881 and 1903, more than 22,000 workers died. Around 1905, New York passed housing and sanitation laws attempting to crack down on sex workers like Mayme, while all the play's black characters would've been subject to the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld "separate but equal" public facilities as legal. Mrs. Van Buren in particular embodies the "Gibson girl," one of the competing images of ideal femininity of the time. The Gibson girl was fashionable, flighty, romantic, and didn't think highly of men—but, as Mrs. Van Buren so carefully points out, she also wasn't interested in suffrage or stepping outside the traditional sphere, positions that were instead taken up by the "New Woman." The turn of the 20th century saw the beginning of the rise of ready-to-wear clothing, which included mass-produced undergarments, but ladies with means still ordered custom garments from seamstresses like Esther. Finally, Mr. Marks was likely a part of the influx of Jewish immigrants beginning in 1881, especially from Russia and eastern European countries. With this mass immigration came a rise in anti-Semitic and anti-immigration sentiment among white Americans.

Other Books Related to Intimate Apparel

The draw of New York as a city of opportunity for immigrants is one that authors and playwrights have explored for years. The 1902 novel by Paul Laurence Dumbar, The Sport of the Gods, explores the breakdown of a black family from the American South as they move to New York and find their dreams of success slowly vanquished. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a semi-autobiographical novel about second- and third-generation immigrants in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Even contemporary young adult novels like Nicola Yoon's The Sun Is Also a Star deal closely with questions of what the American dream means for immigrants and whether or not it's attainable. In 2004, Nottage wrote Fabulation, a companion play to Intimate Apparel that reimagines Esther as a contemporary public relations employee in Manhattan. Nottage's body of work primarily tackles the African American experience in a variety of time periods and situations. Though she's best known for Intimate Apparel, her other award-winning plays include By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and Ruined.
Key Facts about Intimate Apparel
  • Full Title: Intimate Apparel
  • When Written: 2003
  • Where Written: Brooklyn, NY
  • When Published: The play was first performed in 2003; the script was published in 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Dramatic stage play
  • Setting: New York City, 1905
  • Climax: Esther and Mayme refuse to open the door for George
  • Antagonist: George; racism, sexism, and poverty

Extra Credit for Intimate Apparel

Got Your Back. The kinds of corsets that Esther would've made are known as s-bend or swan-bill corsets, and they were originally marketed as a "healthier" alternative to the hourglass-shaped Victorian styles. This claim, however, was questionable: while it may have put less pressure on the stomach, it forced wearers' backs into unnatural and dangerous positions. For this reason, many contemporary costume designers on Intimate Apparel choose to either use corsets that aren't 100% historically accurate, or they choose to use accurate corsets from a few years earlier or later than 1905.

Just Add Music. Intimate Apparel has been commissioned to be adapted into an opera with music by Ricky Ian Gordon, while Lynn Nottage is involved in the project to adapt Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees into a musical.