Behind The Seams

Center Stage artisans stitch the silky wedding corset that has a central role and metaphorical underpinnings in 'Intimate Apparel.'

February 26, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The garment in the picture looks at once flimsy and firm. The top half is sheer, gossamer lace; the bottom, beginning just below the breasts, is highly structured, with long side panels descending over the hips.

Playwright Lynn Nottage stumbled upon this image of an old-fashioned wedding corset while doing research for a new play at the New York Public Library. She copied the picture, took it home and taped it to her computer.

"I was thumbing through books on lingerie and suddenly opened to this page with this beautiful silk wedding corset embroidered with orange blossoms, and it was dated 1905, and I thought, `How perfect,'" she says. "That image was my entrance into the world of the play. Sometimes you have to find that doorway into the world, and that was my doorway."

Nottage called the play Intimate Apparel, and its world premiere run opens tonight at Center Stage. An early 20th-century tale, the plot focuses on Esther, a 35-year-old African-American seamstress, whose skill takes her from the boudoir of a New York society matron to a courtesan's bedroom in the Tenderloin, as well as to the Lower East Side tenement apartment of a Jewish immigrant fabric merchant.

Over the years, Esther sews wedding corsets for many brides, but never for herself. Then she begins a long-distance correspondence with a lonely laborer who is working on the Panama Canal. By the end of Act 1, Esther is selecting fabric for her own wedding. The bridal corset she makes for herself marks a turning point in her life.

Corset - a closefitting undergarment, often tightened with laces and reinforced by stays, worn, chiefly by women, to give support or a desired figure to the body from the hips to or including the breast.

Websters New World Dictionary

The idea of a bride being strapped into a restrictive foundation garment might suggest that marriage symbolizes confinement. But for Nottage - whose great-grandmother was a New York seamstress who made intimate apparel a century ago - a corset can also represent something quite different.

After all, Esther, her protagonist, both wears and makes corsets, but she's also a character with a surprising degree of independence for a black woman at the turn of the 20th century.

At the start of the play, the seamstress doesn't appreciate her autonomy. Concerned about growing older, she latches onto what she hopes will be a conventional marriage. But instead of building a traditional life of domesticity and even dependency, Esther comes away with a greater sense of self-reliance.

"I certainly was toying with the duality of the corset," Nottage says. "In the play, it does, in some ways, restrict the women, but it also is a symbol of freedom." Indeed, she sees the corset as a form of self-expression. Esther's clients wear their corsets to express sensuality and seduction, but Esther expresses herself through the very act of creating the corsets.

"I also liken it to the use of the N-word," the playwright says. "When something is used as a tool of repression against you, in many ways people choose to turn it upside down and take ownership of it and change the way in which they can express themselves through the use of that word, and in this case it's the corset."

Buttercream silk; tiny, embroidered flowers; delicate, ivory-colored lace trim. These are the outer materials of Esther's wedding corset, a foundation garment that is ethereally delicate, but engineered with architectural precision.

The design is the creation of Catherine Zuber. A veteran whose credits include Broadway shows as well as a 1997 Obie Award for sustained achievement off-Broadway, Zuber has worked on more Center Stage productions than any other costume designer. She also knows corsets: A few years ago she designed 2,000 of them for one job alone - a 1999 wine-growers festival in Switzerland.

Zuber's work on Intimate Apparel began at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she culled 100-year-old lingerie advertisements, making copies and sending them to Center Stage to serve as construction guidelines. One, from 1908, shows three women cinched into wasp-waisted corsets; the accompanying copy reads: "The `Specialite' corset - a new form designed to give those straight lines so essential to the present style of dress." Another, from 1899, features a corset with even more exaggerated proportions and bears the name, "Swanbill."

The wedding corset Zuber designed for Esther is much less extreme. "She would have made a beautiful corset, beautiful in its sweetness and tenderness, not in any way vulgar or vampy," the designer says.

It takes the staff of Center Stage's costume shop from six hours to two days to construct each of the six corsets Zuber designed for Intimate Apparel. First, based on Zu- ber's sketch and the actress' measurements, Jill Andrews, the theater's draper, sews a muslin version of the undergarment.

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