Nature uses human imagination to lift her work of creation to even higher levels. —Luigi Pirandello
For those of us in the United States, this is Labor Day. Today, we celebrate hard work, how unions crafted a 40-hour week, guaranteed us weekends, and a litany of other achievements that made the lives of the working class a bit better. We also celebrate the figurative end of summer. Once upon a time, schools didn’t start the fall semester before Labor Day. Old-fashioned style mavens also warned against wearing white Labor Day. This first Monday in September holds a lot of significance.
There is also a piece of counter-culture significance to today: this is the last day of Burning Man. No, I didn’t go this year. Again. I can’t say that I’m overly excited about returning to the playa and getting sand in everything. I keep watch, though. I was a little disturbed when vandals destroyed the tents belonging to the son of a Russian oligarch. I understand their reasons for being upset, but their methods seem a bit out of step with the spirit of the festival. As participants begin to leave, Instagram has been flooded with photos, many of which are, as usual, not safe for work.
Much of life on the playa would be considered not safe for work. Not only is clothing totally optional, the creativity people use in expressing themselves might be considered distracting in the workplace environment. Costuming at Burning Man is sometimes rivals what we’ll see on the runways in New York. Burning Man’s atmosphere of openness and inclusiveness allows people to choose between expressing who they are or who they want to be.
Boxing Ourselves In
We’re all relaxed today, enjoying our day off. I’m sure there will be plenty of people in shorts and t-shirts, maybe a swimsuit or two, and plenty of bare feet (unless you live along the East Coast, in which case you have our sympathies). Take a moment, however, to think about what you will wear and how you will act tomorrow. We get up and, even though we don’t think about it in such terms, we all have these uniforms we put on. Work has expectations for how we dress, how we behave, how we talk, and how we interact with others. Personal expression does not factor into this 150-year-old manufacturing-based system in which we still operate. There are rules. Strict rules.
Granted, some of those restrictions are absolutely necessary. Walking around wearing flammable material, or less, just doesn’t work on a manufacturing floor where things are being welded or metal shards are being flung through the air. We wouldn’t have computers if people didn’t maintain the clean room standards. One certainly doesn’t want to go around handling vials of infectious disease without wearing a biohazard suit. Common sense applies in a lot of obvious situations.
However, in less dangerous climates where special gear and breathing apparatus are not necessary, we still place severe limits on personal expression. We tend to call those limits “professionalism,” but what they actually do is remove the individual and replace them with a corporate identity prescribed to match their duties and class status within the organization. Anything that might potentially distract from productivity is strictly forbidden. For generations, we’ve gone along with those rules because we needed the jobs. However, as a younger group begins to move into those positions of management, perhaps it is time to reconsider.
Pushing The Limits
Kat and I are fortunate to work in creative fields that give us some wiggle room between what is practical and necessary versus what is creative and expressive. Personally, I need little creative space for myself. I am an old man. I have embraced my old=manness. Suspenders are now part of my look so that my pants stay up over my old-man gut. I even briefly considered buying a flannel shirt like my Grandaddy used to wear. I may yet. Kat is sitting here with her hair colored two different shades of blue, sporting a new androgynous cut and style. We get to do things like that. We’re lucky.
I am of the mind, though, that everyone should have the same freedoms, and perhaps more. Common sense has to apply if one is standing near hot grease in a kitchen and such, but the concept that we should be uniform, that we must maintain a look of “professionalism” is overrated and outdated. If one is a receptionist at a financial services company on Wall Street, there is no damn good reason why that person shouldn’t be able to wear a sexy gladiator look like Cara Delevigne did on the playa. Unless one is working around flammable materials, the cool looks of these four guys would make any office environment more relaxed and entertaining.
I understand, the nudity that is so common in the desert makes the more prudish types uncomfortable. They may not shop with you or buy your stuff if you show up to work topless or something. But why can we not wear creative hats or shirts made of scarves? Is there really anything wrong with someone choosing to wear creative face paint to work if you’re in an office where no one except your cubicle mates sees you?
Breaking The Mold
We spend far too much of our time at work to be locked into an identity prescribed by someone else. There are plenty of ways we could open up and make our workplaces more friendly to self-expression and individuality without interrupting productivity. At the end of the day, does it really matter whether one is wearing a business suit as long as we’re getting the work done? Why should everyone’s first job trap them in polyester? Things such as individual hair styles and facial decorations do not impact the quality of work one does. If we could ever get past the overt sexualization and objectification of the human body, there would be no reason to not wear sheer tops or even go topless in many offices. We have made workplaces far too restrictive without giving any reason to the restrictions.
I know, I sound excessive. There’s no chance people are going to start walking around half-naked in the back rooms of a bank. Society is not ready for the creativity and freedom of Burning Man to be thrust upon them all at once. Still, we can begin to open the door. Pushing the boundaries where you are proves how little individuality impacts productivity. Younger people moving into positions of authority can begin to relax rules without upsetting the whole environment. There are many ways to begin to move forward.
We have to work. There’s no getting around that. But no one should have to sacrifice expressing who they are in order to make a living. It’s time to make work a little less “safe” and a lot more open to alternatives.