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‘We live our lives in clothes’

We meet Dion Terrelonge to talk about ‘style psychology’ and her work as an educational psychologist.

29 June 2018

Dion tells me: 'The best way I can explain the complementary nature of fashion and wellbeing is through something a woman said to me during a talk I'd given. She explained that she had once worn her favourite David Bowie t-shirt for a week to stop a low mood from taking hold – it helped her feel happy. We've seen that exercise and physical health impact on emotional wellbeing – so do the clothes we wear. That's not a trivial issue and I want to encourage thinking and research about it.'

Which is presumably why Dr Dion Terrelonge, a fairly recently qualified educational psychologist, wrote to us, saying, '[Fashion psychology] is an emerging, or rather re-emerging, field which so far seems to focus on the potential negative impact of fashion in the media interpretation of trends, etc… I am interested in the link between personal style and wellbeing, the relationships people have with clothing… and the effect dress has on our cognitions and behaviours.'

Having considered whether I needed to dress up for the occasion (I didn't, so it's just as well that this is not the focus of Dion's work), I met her in Joe and the Juice, a crowded coffee bar in Cannon Street London.

Which came first – an interest in psychology or in fashion? 'I've wanted to be a psychologist since I was 16. I was always curious about the world. I remember wondering what was going on for some of my classmates who seemed to be struggling in different ways. Education became a safe place for me; my mother was loving and caring but, growing up, things were far from easy, so school became a safe and predictable base.' Dion thought for a while. 'I probably needed someone to help, advise and talk to me as a child, but that person wasn't around. One or two years ago I realised I had trained to be the person I'd needed.' She believes passionately in the value of education. 'It's the one thing that can't be taken away from you; every child deserves a good education. I was the first member of my immediate family to go to university. My A-level psychology teacher asked me what I liked and then said, "It sounds like you want to be an educational psychologist", and that was that.'

Dion took her first degree in Hertfordshire: 'Not too far from home. I loved it – I enjoyed the stats and worked as a maths teacher for two years after my degree. During that period, I saved money to fund my master's, then took out a small career development loan to afford to eat! My master's was in research methods and data analysis. I love SPSS and statistics but, to be honest, I mastered in that area because I was told it gave you a better chance of getting a place on a doctorate programme. That turned out not to be true. But I still find working with data very relaxing, almost therapeutic.'

After working at the Anna Freud Centre as a research officer on what is now called the Child Outcomes Research Consortium, Dion took her doctorate at The Tavistock Centre. 'I found that difficult. It's not a conventional academic establishment, and their strategy of, what seemed like, breaking you down to build you up intimidated me at first. I found self-exposure very difficult. But at a growth-related conference on group relations I suddenly got it. They were training you to be the technique or tool you used, rather than thinking that a test or a particular analytical technique was your primary way of relating to a client. And the strategy challenged me as a person – I learnt a lot about myself and the value of reflective practice.' What was the subject of your PhD? 'Why white working-class boys were underachieving. I loved talking to the boys – in fact I love any sort of research where I feel I'm learning.'

Clothes are one (important) part of our identity

'I'm not very good at downtime so I took a personal styling course during the second year of my doctorate.' Was that because you wanted to change the way you looked? 'Oddly, I don't particularly like shopping for myself, but I really enjoy shopping for other people and helping them find things they feel good in. I was interested in why people wore what they wore and the effect it had on them. A friend's relationship broke down, he wasn't very happy and he lost a lot of weight training for a charity event. He hadn't cared about clothes before, but he asked me to help him buy some new things because of the weight loss. The pleased look and smile that spread across his face when he tried on a pair of jeans that were actually flattering was warming for me and highlighted the positive impact of something so simple. Later he said, "People keep telling me how good I look." It boosted his confidence at a time when he needed it – in some senses it changed how he considered himself as a person and empowered him to make further positive life changes. Feeling good about how you look empowers you. By contrast, an attendee at one of my talks told me about the time he was detained in a mental health hospital and kept in the same clothes while he was recovering. Before he left the hospital, he felt better and different, but believed the staff seemed to see him and treat him as the same person he was when he entered, at his lowest point. The clothes contributed to this effect, and after leaving he continued to wear this outfit during low episodes.'

Why doesn't everybody think more about their appearance? 'It's like certain children who are reluctant to try to learn new things – fear of failure prevents them from trying. Adults can be like that with clothes. It's not helped by the fact that fashion is an intimidating world and clothes shops can be unwelcoming. Having an empathetic and genuinely interested person with you can help to overcome some of these barriers. The personal styling course taught about body shape and colour analysis, which are important. But what I really noted was how some stylists spoke about people as though they were clothes hangers. The stylists didn't think about why the clients were seeking a styling service. By contrast, I think that just as children are placed at the centre of my educational psychology work, so an adult individual stands at the centre of my style and wellbeing consultancy. I always employ a person-centred approach. It's not about imposing a "fashionable style" on someone, but about empowering that person and helping them feel comfortable, so they can grow in confidence. In effect, a lot of stylists treat the symptoms rather than attempting to find out the causes. They go to clothes first. I try and find out why me, why now, what the issues and needs might be, the preferred future. I only talk about styling if that's part of the solution.'

Has this work changed how you look? 'Yes. It's made me care less about what other people think. I dress for myself more and take more risks.'

Dion set up a website and created a consultancy 'very much based on what people seemed to want. It's aimed at people who are going through change – say a mastectomy or post-pregnancy – where they may engage with clothes differently to how they did before. These transitions can be daunting – think about people experiencing gender reassignment. The first time they go in to buy clothes that are not in line with their assigned sex can be a pretty daunting and an emotional task. Why don't we support in this?'

She still works as an educational psychologist for Tower Hamlets five days a week and is full of praise for the borough. 'It allows psychologists to work creatively on bespoke projects, not just statutory tasks. I get to run multidisciplinary trainings, work across a range of settings and use my love of group dynamics. Plus the team are amazing.

Presumably some people still see her fashion work as trivial as opposed to 'real' psychology with children? 'Well, yes. But I don't understand why psychology is divided into all these little boxes, and what's wrong with searching for new areas to inform. If psychology studies human beings, surely it can be used anywhere human beings are, and addressing anything they engage with. Undoubtedly, what we wear effects how we feel, and how we feel effects what we chose to wear. There's psychology here.'

What does the future hold? 'I'm doing a lot of talks, so I need to continue with that and establish my consultancy. I tend to not call this area fashion psychology, but rather style psychology, because it's about personal style and choice, rather than trends and high fashion. But most importantly, the whole area needs more of a research base to underpin it and I plan to contribute to that by exploring the link between clothing choices and emotional wellbeing.'

Dion signs off with her favourite quotation. 'It's from the 19th-century writer Thomas Carlyle. He wrote, "Those who consider clothes frivolous should consider that we live our lives in clothes."'