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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Intimate Apparel - A Play about Sewing, Underwear, and Love in 1905

Program cover for Intimate Apparel
Forget the famous Jerry Maguire love-at-first-sight quote, “You had me at hello.” The play, Intimate Apparel, did one better. I was hooked before the action even started, while the stage was still dark, by a single sound - an old-fashioned sewing machine. The distinctive clicky-clack made my heart go pittypat.

To my ear, it sounded exactly like a treadle machine in need of a good oiling. However on-stage, they used a beautiful old hand-crank. This lovely antique was more than a prop – Esther’s livelihood and the play’s plot centred around her prowess with the machine.

For anyone involved in the fabric arts, the play was sheer (or worsted or jacquard) delight. One of Esther’s love interests was a fabric merchant. The way the two discussed fabric made my fingertips tingle.  Only being trapped upstairs in the balcony prevented me from rushing on-stage to feel the materials for myself.

But my fascination wasn’t limited to the sewing machine and fabrics. Like me, Esther made her living sewing intimate apparel. She specialized in corsets, while I made mostly bras with the occasional bridal corset for fun. Esther’s corsets caught my eye. I must confess, I never sewed beaded fringe on any of mine.

As a corset maker, I’ve had my ethics challenged several times. Usually questions about feminism and subjugation and archaic torture. A paragraph in Intimate Apparel’s program’s wardrobe notes made me smile. It said:

Historically, women have been moulded into many shapes that are quite different from the natural shape of the body. Today it is women’s feet that are reshaped and constricted by stiletto heels and pointed toes....

For most people, the play focuses on the race and class issues of 1905. For me, it was the story of a woman’s life as told through fabric and thread.

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