An extremely intelligent intelligence. Ink on paper, word art with abstract glyphs. Own work. 2020.

What's your tactical ballgown?

Utterances that undermine their own purpose and clothing that's the right amount of too much

by AK Krajewska

An icebreaker is a pickup line for making friends. Like a pickup line, it immediately signals your intention. A line like “Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by again?” might be cheesy but it leaves no doubt that your interest is of a romantic nature. Then again, ambiguity is a key element of flirting, so if you make it obvious that you’re flirting, you undermine it. Maybe that’s why pickup lines both get mocked and at the same time are so deliberately silly. We mock them because they destroy the very flirtation they aim to initiate. The popular ones are deliberately silly so the person using them can play them off as just a laugh, not a serious pickup, and so restore the ambiguity of flirtation.

Whew. I think I was channeling Zizek there for a while or something. Excuse me while I blow my nose and turn the portrait of Stalin to the wall.

So anyway, icebreakers try to cut through the small talk, just the way pickup lines do, and try to get people to open up to each other to build a relationship faster. I suppose structurally that’s also why they are seen as somewhat risible. Opening up to someone and becoming friends is supposed to be spontaneous and a little bit mysterious. When you become friends with someone, there’s always some period where you aren’t sure if you are friends yet, if it’s appropriate to share certain things or not. The icebreaker attempts to shortcut that by insisting you open up right away. The best icebreakers are a little bit silly, I think, which makes it easier to frame all the scary opening up as a game. And a game is a kind of enclosure, just like a ritual or a therapy session, where you can do and say things that would be too real if you did them for real.

And oh, wow, I hadn’t really realized this when I started writing this yet another not-really-a-book-review about Promises Stronger Than Darkness that the extreme weirdo silliness of this book is what lets it be so real and head-on about the feelings.

Getting down to brass lace eyelets

But that’s not what I really wanted to write about. I wanted to write about my favorite idea from the book and how it would make a wonderful icebreaker, the tactical ballgown:

“Elza goes to the cubby where she’s been sleeping and hunts inside a tiny wicker box until she finds a lump of fuchsia satin: her tactical ballgown. She looks at its rippling folds, thinking, This is ridiculous—and then she pulls it on over her practical black explorer pants. The moment those folds and billows settle around her waist and hips, she feels better, as if Rachael is still with her.” – Promises Stronger Than Darkness by Charlie Jane Anders

If you’ve read the Unstoppable trilogy, you know that Elza is a princess who communicates with a sentient supercomputer using a crown. In the last book, her friend Rachel also designs a tactical ballgown for Elza. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a princess-worthy ballgown. But it is also a real piece of armor that protects her in battle. It lets her be her most powerful and most fabulous self. It strengthens her body and her spirit. But also? It is a little bit ridiculous. It is a little bit too much for the situation.

That got me thinking: What’s my tactical ballgown? And then, I thought, that’s a great question to ask other people, too. It would be an amazing icebreaker. Forget “Tell me one fun fact about yourself,” or (ugh) “What do you do?”

New icebreaker just dropped

So, what’s your tactical ballgown? You know, the clothing item or accessory people would normally dismiss as utterly impractical and too much but which actually helps you be effective in a crucial or unexpected way?

For example, a lady I know has been wearing the same kind of over-the-top goth makeup since probably the 80s along with all the intense clothing and jewelry that goes with it. She puts it on every time she leaves the house, as far as I know. She was my house guest for a little while, so I’ve seen the transformation. She’s a small lady from a marginalized group and when she puts on her outfit and makeup, it just changes how people interact with her in the world. It both keeps her safe and creates an opening for conversations on her terms. Her whole wardrobe is tactical ballgowns.

Most people, I think, have something like that. Some outfit or item of clothing that just makes you feel like your most powerful and fabulous self in a way that helps you navigate the world more effectively.

Photo of author holding a pumpkin and wearing a bright orange scarf

I’m still thinking about mine, but my provisional answer is my ridiculously long pumpkin-orange scarf. It’s made out of light cotton and goes to my knees even after I wrap it around my neck, because it was originally intended to be a dupatta that went with a kurti and skirt set. A saleslady in Bangalore convinced me to get it to go with the set even though I thought that it clashed and was not my color. I hardly ever wear the dress now because it’s too light for San Francisco (plus it’s generally not appropriate for me to wear in most situations) but I wear that orange scarf all the dang time.

It whips behind me stylishly. It’s so bright drivers are sure to see me when I cross the road. I’ve wrapped it tight to protect myself from the wind and worn it loose to shield myself from the sun. Sometimes I use it to dry my hands in it after washing them. It also works to clean my glasses.

And last but not least, when worn with my usual black clothing, it makes me look like I’m wearing Giants’ team colors, which, in San Francisco, makes people inexplicably nice to me. Sometimes they ask if I saw the game and if I say (as is almost always the case) that I didn’t get a chance to, they tell me how it went. It’s the right amount of social interaction with utter strangers, as far as I’m concerned.

Though I guess if I ever wanted to get to know them better, I could ask them an icebreaker. Perhaps this one.

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