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Historical research was an important part of Lynn Nottage’s work on Intimate Apparel. The idea to write the play occurred to the author when she became interested in her great-grandmother’s life (Zinoman). Like the play’s main character, Nottage’s great-grandmother was a seamstress in New York.
Nottage found her great-grandmother’s picture in an old family house and wanted to learn more about what it was like to live in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, but she had no one to ask, so she went to a library and conducted her extensive research. This is important because Nottage’s intention was “articulating the stories of those without a voice” (Soloski), and the research helped the playwright gain insight into how people who were marginalized lived, and so she was able to tell stories that no one else could tell.
A particular area that requires research to understand the context of the play is the economic situation. First of all, Esther is a seamstress, which is not a synonym for dressmaker (“Dressmaker”), and the notable difference is that seamstresses do not normally design clothes but only handle the technical aspect of dressmaking; however, Esther does much of the creative work for her clients, too. She operates a sewing machine, and George even makes a reference to that in his letter when he says that he pictures Esther at work and hears “the sound of the wheel turning” (Nottage 17). It remains somewhat unclear, however, what the actual conditions of Esther’s job are.
The first thing that a reader can discover upon reading the play and conducting research is that Esther’s position was much better than might have been expected for an African-American woman in the 1900s. According to the famous journalist and social documentary photographer Jacob Riis, seamstresses in New York could earn two to five dollars a week, while “one restaurant’s dinner of soup, meat stew, bread, pie, pickles and a schooner of beer cost 13 cents” (“1900-1920”).
Esther not only can afford a decent room and decent food but also manages to save up money. Although it is unclear how many working black women from the South migrated to New York in the early 1900s (internal migration was much less documented than immigration from abroad), there were most likely thousands of them who pursued better labor conditions in the North (Gayle); Esther is an example of this kind of independent worker who is self-employed and has rather good prospects compared to women in other parts of the country.
This economic situation primarily affects Esther herself; for example, it allows her to secretly dream about opening a beauty parlor with her savings (Nottage 25). Esther is very grateful for the opportunity she has to work independently and also for her talent, as she says, “It was as though God kissed my hands when I first pulled the fabric through the sewing machine” (Nottage 48). But there is also a character who was affected by the economic situation in a very different way: Mrs. Dickson. She says she never wanted to work as her mother, and the alternative path she chose in her life was “to marry up” (Nottage 39). In order not to engage in the labor that caused her mother, a washerwoman, so much suffering, Mrs. Dickson was even willing to do some un-lovely things in her life.
“1900-1920: Lifestyles and Cost of Living in New York City.” Jewish Gen. Web.
“Dressmaker.” Wikipedia. Web.
Gayle, Janette. “Invaders’: Black Ladies of the ILGWU and the Emergence of the Early Civil Rights Movement in New York City.” The Gotham Center for New York City History. 2016. Web.
Nottage, Lynn. Intimate Apparel, Fabulation. Theatre Communications Group, 2006.
Soloski, Alexis. “Lynn Nottage: Intimate Apparel and What Lies beneath My Plays.” The Guardian. 2014. Web.
Zinoman, Jason. “Theater; Lynn Nottage Enters Her Flippant Period.” The New York Times. 2004. Web.