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.

She then takes the muslin apart and uses it to create a brown paper pattern. The pattern for Esther's wedding corset consists of 14 pieces that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Most are wedge-shaped; a few are long and narrow.

Next, a mock-up is made out of coutil, a white cotton herringbone fabric that doesn't stretch. Coutil will also be used for the inner structure of the finished corset, which, in the fourth and final step, will be covered with silk.

As she works, Andrews, who has her own custom wedding gown business outside of Center Stage, finds herself identifying with Esther. "You definitely channel what she's thinking because she's very practical when she's sewing for herself, but she's going to add the little flourishes that are going to make it uniquely hers," she says. "She would make [the corset] a little different or a little special for herself. So the seaming is very grand, the lines are delicate and a little bit art nouveau. It's a blossom."

Corset making - which Andrews occasionally does for her modern-day wedding gowns - is a craft she particularly enjoys. In the case of Esther's wedding corset, the support structure is formed by 30 steel stays (in 1905 the stays would have been made of whalebone). Five metal hooks line the front and laces criss-cross the back.

"I like to alter the shape of the body," Andrews says. "Corsets are cool because the person becomes that shape. The corset makes the girls the same shape as the dress form."

As she and her co-workers measure, cut and stitch, they discuss corset trivia. Corsets that hooked in front were designed for women who didn't have maids to help them dress. Camisoles were frequently worn under corsets because camisoles were easier to wash. And corsets have a dark side - radically distorting women's figures sometimes led to horrific results such as expelled uteruses.

Before their costumes are finished, the actresses in Intimate Apparel begin rehearsing in corsets borrowed from the theater's stock. The moment they put them on, their shoulders straighten and their posture lengthens. The corsets "place them in period. It's odd - just the psychological experience of a corset changes how they interact with each other," says director Kate Whoriskey.

"It adds a different quality that just helps with building your character," explains actress Shane Williams, who plays Esther. And, she says, "It helps me have an idea what I'm going to have to adjust to."

Williams (who pronounces her first name "Sha-NAY") gets a better idea at her first fitting, which comes one week into the rehearsal process. It is the first in a two-day marathon of cast fittings, for which Zuber travels down from New York.

Preliminary versions of Williams' costumes fill the fitting room at Center Stage. The rigid mock-up of the wedding corset contrasts markedly with the filmy muslins of Esther's outer garments - a suit with a flowing skirt and elegant jacket, and several billowy bodices.

"I actually like corsets," says Williams, after putting on the undergarment she'll wear throughout the first act. Her corsets are 2 inches smaller than her waist, but if she feels any strain, it doesn't show. She breaks into an abbreviated sprint, then kneels and finally lowers herself into a chair. "I can sit, oh, good!"

After Andrews laces Williams into the wedding corset mock-up, the actress spins in a graceful twirl. "Wow! This is so pretty!" she exclaims. The draper has deliberately left extra fabric at the top and bottom, and Zuber uses a blue pen to draw in precisely where the corset should begin and end. While David Burdick, the costume shop manager, jots Zuber's comments on a yellow legal pad, Sue Holmes, whose job title is "first hand," stands at the ready with a large, flat pin cushion.

Williams asks if the costume staff can give her pointers on the stitching she'll be doing on stage. Grateful smiles light up every face. "A little tutorial," says Burdick. "We'll see how good you get. I might need you."

Two weeks later, the costumes are almost complete, and Zuber, Andrews, Burdick and Holmes are back in the fitting room with Williams. The mock-ups and muslins from the first fitting are nowhere in sight. But Intimate Apparel is the rare show in which even these "early drafts" won't go to waste: They'll be part of the production, adorning the numerous dress forms on designer Walt Spangler's set, as if they were Esther's handiwork.

Before Williams tries on the wedding corset, the costume staff sings out a little fanfare.

Lacing the actress into the finished corset, Andrews asks if she's making it too tight. Williams requests that she pull tighter. After securing the laces in a bow, Andrews steps back, and Williams gazes happily into the mirror. "Oh, gosh, I'm loving this!" she exclaims.

"Beauteous," remarks a clearly delighted Zuber. "I love the corset."

Using a measuring tape that has been draped around Burdick's neck, Andrews takes a final measurement of Williams' slim waist in the wedding corset. It comes to a smidge over 23 inches.

Once again, Williams tries various poses. She bends, sits and, this time, reclines on the floor in a cheesecake pose.

In the end, she stands up, regally. Her hands are clasped in front of her with her fingertips gently touching her lips. She looks as if she's offering a silent prayer - a benediction for a corset.

Intimate Apparel

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays; through March 30

Tickets: $25-$45

Call: 410-332-0033

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