An especially insightful review of Alexander Wang's recent New York Fashion Week runway show compared the designer's deconstruction of his fall line to "Art 101," and the Nude Descending a Staircase in particular. Like Duchamp's nude, the new season's wardrobe becomes visually fragmented on the runway, distributed across the show in a way that invites the audience to not only mentally remix the clothes into new ensembles but to apprehend all the possible combinations and the inevitable transitional states between them. The effect is, as the critic points out, "like seeing a film montage of a woman getting dressed" or like catching a model "in the midst of pulling her dress on."
The theme has broader resonance within fashion. The sheer scope of commercial seasonal lines requires designers to enlist multiple models to demonstrate all the garments that are available, effectively allowing the hypothetical buyer to try on everything at once. The closet [or museum] explodes, and so does the idealized self-image; if the experience of wearing one exquisite dress is good, multiple models give the consumer a sense of how much better it would be to wear multiple dresses simultaneously and, when ordinarily each garment has to be appreciated serially and then replaced in turn, how it would feel to enjoy the entire wardrobe "in the round." As the woman walks down Duchamp's staircase, her image multiplies, time compresses and we see her as a montage of both trajectories and unrealized potential -- the woman she is, the women she was and will be, the possible women in between.
Naturally the eye rests on those possibilities, the transitional states in which one ensemble flickers into the next. It's the illusion of film, in which the retinal stutter between still frames conspires with the mind to generate a sense of motion, of the woman descending or of these clothes liberated from the rarefied runway environment into the offices, streets and ballrooms of life. Within the transitional stutter, even impossible desires may be realized, not to mention more prosaic daydreams of watching the models between outfits.
Duchamp's model, of course, was nude.