If you’re wondering about this autumn’s fashion trends and how best to follow them, you need not look any farther than the upcoming presidential election. Politics, as it generates and encourages controversy and ideological differences, tends to be a breeding ground for fashion statements — and similarly, fashion can itself be a powerful conduit for political opinions and agenda. Think of the never-ending reflections created when two mirrors are placed opposite each other. And if you’re shaking your head now in disbelief, or just plain confusion, let me elucidate my point by taking you first to the sidewalks of New Haven and then to the catwalks of New York.

For starters, Fall 2004 fashion can be interpreted as an homage to the major U.S. political parties — and if you don’t know what these are, even fashion can’t save you, I’m afraid. For the conservatives amongst us, there are “matchy matchy” (read: stuffy and matronly) tweed suits, pearls and blouses. Liberals, on the other hand, can flaunt their, well, liberalism by strutting around in wilder, more daring mixes featuring luxe estate jewelry, eye-catching brooches and metallics. Think “extreme bling” and you’ll get a good idea. Fashionistas like Sarah Jessica Parker have creatively glamorized blase objects like a brooch by simply pinning a sparkly one to a tank strap or plain sweater and playing with unexpected and dramatic placement such as the waistline or even the hair. Without a doubt, versatility and diversity are key components of this season’s trends.

“What if you’re a moderate or independent in the political arena?” you ask. Good news! The eclectic trends of this autumn offer a unique opportunity for people of neither conservative nor liberal camps to wear their individualism and personality proudly. The concepts of mixing high and low (for example, combining designer with flea market finds) and layering disparate elements (such as sporting a luxurious silk camisole underneath a fitted tweed jacket) have been gaining in popularity, especially under the influence of designer Miuccia Prada (Miu Miu and Prada). Her creations are effortless, modern and vintage, all at the same time. She is truly an inspiration, no matter which party you identify with.

It can be seen, then, that fashion has a genuine ability to transcend politics, making it only an accessory, not the main ensemble. What you wear and the style you aspire to need not have any bearing on what you believe politically, and the tolerance, freedom and individualism that fashion espouses is delightfully refreshing in the face of an election year’s heavy and relentless political propaganda and bombardment.

Yet, recent decisions by major designers, like Kenneth Cole and Tara Subkoff, have sewed fashion and politics a little too close for people’s tastes. This quote appeared in a recent Washington Post article by Robin Givhan, entitled “Politics Heads Down the Runway”: “The inherent danger when the fashion industry tries to incorporate weighty thought into a construct of lace, sequins and chiffon is that everything can suffer. Serious issues appear to be trivialized. And the clothes turn out ponderous and ugly.”

There is an interesting lesson to be learned here. Fashion infused with too heavy a dose of politics is a recipe for disaster. And one of the most valuable things at stake here is artistic genius itself. Kenneth Cole’s collection was perceived as only “mediocre to nice,” despite its (or maybe because of its) bustling political message. A not-too-subtle soundtrack featured lyrics like “Make love not war. Let’s kiss not fight. Try to do what’s right.” When the audience, anticipating haute couture, has messages like “November 2 is not a dress rehearsal” thrown out at them, for all its clever wordplay and political nuance, there is an inevitable displacement of fashion from a locus of aesthetic expression and appreciation to a political instrument. The music it plays may very well be in tune with our polarized times, as indicated by the extent to which the fashion industry has dabbled in politics of late, but it somehow strips away the essential core of fashion and replaces it with something else.

This “something else” turned out in Subkoff’s show at Bryant Park to be a big gray mass of ambiguity, leaving spectators in the dust, grappling with indecipherable symbolism in both set design and models’ clothes. Too much abstraction, too little concreteness — but such is the price that fashion has to pay when it takes up a new cause and downplays its characteristically hedonistic obsession with “frocks, status and frivolity.”

To be sure, there is no frivolity in the air today, and as Election Day looms nearer, we will certainly see the power of fashion in action. Indeed, fashion can speak louder than both words and actions. One not-too-distant example will suffice. First Lady Laura Bush quashed any notions of herself as a meek, mousy librarian when she appeared at the inaugural balls in a curve-hugging, siren-red dress. Her neck and ears were bedecked with diamonds and rubies, courtesy of Dallas jeweler Sue Gragg. Juxtapose this radiance and bold silhouette with the memories of Hillary Rodham Clinton adorned in soft-spoken, mild violet at her husband’s first inauguration. If this picture alone speaks a thousand words, just imagine what Tolstoyian novels fashion may yet write!

Ting Ting Yan sees nothing wrong with walking up Science Hill in Jimmy Choo heels.