Over the last few days, several articles have called attention to the fashion choices of our leading men and women. Over at The Daily Beast, there was a piece titled, “The Language of Margaret Thatcher’s Handbags.” Another piece from the Wall Street Journal took a look at Michelle Obama’s wide-cinching belts, which binds her dress to her mid-waist. After Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News last week to give her views on the Iowa caucus, the blogosphere was more agitated by her new hairdo than by what she said, outrageous or not.  And then there’s the case of Rick Santorum’s sweater vest, which has taken on a life of its own in the media and on Twitter, where it has its own handle.  

Articles like these are abuzz in the media on a daily basis, obsessed as it is with judging celebrities—political or otherwise—as much on their appearance as their opinions. I suppose voyeur-journalism is only to be expected in the digital age. The question is, what possesses the media to compulsively cover the facile fashion choices of our leading men and women? Why does a sweater or a dress merit its own story?

Our fashion choices, like totems, are an easy way to communicate and connect with people who do and don’t know us. In a culture as focused on appearances as ours, a quick way to express yourself and your social status is through your accoutrements--what you wear, your body language, and your manner. We are all, by force of circumstance, voyeur and exhibitionist, observer and observed. For Margaret Thatcher, “handbags came to signify femininity and toughness.” Michelle Obama’s belts are also a symbol of “power” and “femininity…[and] for a style that prevents wearers from taking a deep breath, some extra-wide belts on the spring runways were seen as inspired by bondage gear or corsets.” Sarah Palin’s new hairstyle was disheveled, which led one blogger to wonder, “Was her hairstylist off for a post-holiday vacay? Was she trying out a new 'do for 2012? Or did she just not feel like washing and brushing out her New Year's Eve style? I want answers.” Rick Santorum’s vest, meanwhile, was “symbolic of his neighborly Good Lord Jesus sincerity.”

Public figures like Thatcher, Obama, Palin, and Santorum do not symbolize these various qualities that the media projects onto them—rather, they want us to think that they do. Their fashion choices are just as manufactured as their sound bites, putting the lie to the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes—in fact more often than not—a picture is just a picture, just as it was once observed that, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Words carry meaning in ways that fashion can only pretends to. And yet, the power of the picture, the visual, the shape and color of the image will steal the attention of anyone living fast and loose in a world of style over substance. Too often, the pundit’s preference for a quick judgment about the "powerful" accessory is akin to a teenager’s preference for video games over reading a thick book.  

The problem with the media's coverage is its lazy bias of style over substance, which is ultimately a general criticism of our culture at large (and of ourselves in particular). Most of us, including the best and the brightest, won't remember what Sarah Palin said on Fox News last week, but we'll remember her bee-hive hairdo.