In the 1890s, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created the “Gibson Girl,” who came to define fashion norms in the early 20th century. Sporting tight corsets and hair often coaxed into a bouffant, the women had hourglass figures that continued to shrink as they cinched their waists.
In Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, Esther and Mayme are leading ladies and best friends.
For every new play written about an Esther Mills, it seems there are a dozen more about Mary Todd Lincoln’s black seamstress, Martin Luther King Jr.’s black hotel maid and Woodrow Wilson’s black stenographer. It is simply easier for playwrights to get a commission when they choose to focus on African-American characters who are connected to known historical figures.
After playwright Lynn Nottage won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, she said in an interview that she finds her characters and stories in varied places. Sometimes in a newspaper, “obscure historical texts” or dinner party conversations.
A perfect piece of apparel is nothing without the reliable threads that bind it together. The same idea works in theater; a good play is nothing without a strong set of actors.
It all began with a photograph. While cleaning through her grandmother’s things, Lynn Nottage found a picture of her great-grandmother with a Barbadian. Nottage was aware that her great-grandmother was a seamstress who specialized in making intimate apparel for ladies, and of her connection to the Caribbean island of Barbados, but that picture made her curious.