New York circa 1905 is a time and place where rigid social divides along the lines of race, religion, and class exist alongside a burgeoning population of immigrants from abroad and people from all over the U.S., who have moved to the city to seek their fortunes, bringing diversity, excitement, and change. Esther Mills, a skilled African-American seamstress, is able to navigate this changing, dangerous world with her needle and thread, as her talents are much in demand: she sews the finest and most decadent intimate apparel for customers who span the spectrum of social class, from refined Fifth Avenue wives to prostitutes in the racy Tenderloin district. A virtuous, hard-working woman, with a dream of saving enough money to open her own beauty parlor, Esther has kept her nose to the grindstone for eighteen years, but ends up feeling as if life is passing her by. Romance beckons in the form of George Armstrong, a stranger who writes to her from his work on the Panama Canal, and Esther finds herself falling for his poetic words, even though her friends warn her against his sweet talk, and even though she herself is unable to read or write, and must ask for help to compose her own letters in reply. After George arrives in New York City, and after they are married, Esther discovers that she is not the only one who misrepresented herself during their correspondence courtship, and that she is now in danger of heartbreak. Warm, intelligent, and deeply human, Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel explores the desire for both independence and connection, the insidious effects of racism and classism, the social oppression of women, and the bravery, hard work, friendship, and love, of people who have been forgotten by history.
Intimate Apparel guide sections