In Intimate Apparel, the time is 1905 in New York City and Esther, a middle-aged, black seamstress, has learned to make ends meet by teaching herself to sew beautiful and delicate lingerie for her uptown and downtown clientele.
After nearly two decades of loneliness and watching the younger and prettier girls come and go in the boarding house she rents from, Esther finds solace and possible romance in letters from George, a handsome, young Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal. Re-energized by his affectionate words, but hindered by illiteracy, Esther confides in two of her patrons, Mrs. Van Buren, a rich white socialite, and Mayme, a prostitute, to pen her letters back to George.
Meanwhile, Esther's heart also seems to lie with Mr. Marks, the Hasidic shopkeeper who relishes in sharing his exquisite finds of satins and silks and has also grown increasingly fond of Esther. But the impossibility of their match is obvious to them both.