The Woman I Wanted to Be: Identity

I just finished reading Diane Von Furstenberg’s memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be. What I found most fascinating was that, as she steps back to look at the pattern of her life, Diane Von Furstenberg notices that every failure she experienced, in her personal relationships and in her groundbreaking business, was a result of losing her loyalty to her original vision.

Diane remembers when she first designed her signature jersey wrap dress in the 1960s. It was alluring but empowering, looked good on every woman in every stage of her life, packed well and was appropriate for all occasions. Diane had always had a picture in her mind of the fast-paced, glamorous powerhouse she had always wanted to become, and this dress was the child of that vision.

American women loved these dresses, snapping them up and collecting every original pattern. But soon the market was saturated, and sales dropped dramatically. DVF responded by expanding into mid-priced department stores, licensed home decor lines and budget tele-shopping collections on QVC. The DVF name was everywhere, but Diane no longer had creative input and she felt that the brand had gotten away from her. She didn’t even like a lot of the products that bore her signature. It was a dark time and she knew she had to rein in the empire and get it back on track financially and creatively. She had to get to a place where her team made decisions not for financial survival, but from a position of strength and aesthetic integrity.

To unite her team in the same vision and mission statement, her closest advisers proposed an in-depth brainstorming session.

excerpt DVF ID

There are many reasons that we can get a little lost. Sometimes, as in the case of DVF, it’s when things grow and change very quickly. Even “good changes” can distract us or lead us off track from our original vision. Sometimes we suffer a setback and lose sight of what made us happy and excited when we first started out. At times I find that even the daily challenges of life can make us forget and neglect our vision of who we want to be.

At Facing History, we use a pedagogical strategy called the Identity Chart. It’s a simple tool that can be easily manipulated for all kinds of discussion and self-discovery. It answers the question, “Who am I?” and helps you drill down to what is most integral to your vision for yourself.

Identity is truly fluid, and changes with every defining experience. We hope to have defining experiences in every stage of life, because that means we’re always growing. The key is to continuously check in on our own identity and core values and use those as a measuring stick for our choices.

Here is an example of a possible identity chart for Diane Von Furstenberg:

DVF id chart

Circled are the primary descriptors she chose to define her business.

Here is a simplified identity chart for me:

SHB id chart

Identity charts like this can help you focus on your own core values and can be useful measuring sticks for life decisions. Give it a try and don’t censor yourself. Include whatever you want most; even things you have not accomplished yet, if these dreams are integral to your identity. No one has to see this but you! Then circle the attributes without which you would not be YOU.

George Eliot (another talented woman who made unorthodox choices) famously wrote, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been”. You can always guide your life back to your core identity, one small choice at a time.

And what about that little jersey wrap dress that inspired women to be assertive and alluring and strong? How can we all make our outsides match our insides? This is called Inside-Out Congruency. It’s how we take our identity and dress to express it to the world.

Our appearance can reflect so many facets of ourselves. It places us in the world, communicates where we feel most comfortable. Our outsides can convey our religious convictions, our ethical consumerism, our love of color or travel or punk rock. In a season where Normcore is spreading like wildfire, it feels good to slow down and think about what our outsides tell people about who we are inside. Some call this “dressing your truth”.

Iris Apfel, the eclectic grandmama of dressing one’s truth, once said:

But let me suggest, if you don’t think like everyone else, why should you dress like everyone else? Be your whole self right from the get-go.

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