Waking along walls of human bones with a slight smell of mold in the air. Bones of people who once were rich or poor, powerful or simple, lie mixed with one another, symbolizing human equality – if not earlier, then at least after death. Literally under the beautiful city of Paris there is another secret town with about 300 km of secret passages that have streets running parallelly under the ones on the ground, often bearing same names. Parisian catacombs are former quarries, dating back to Roman times. Strictly regulated stone digging went on until the prohibition at the beginning of 19th century. At the same time several Parisian cemeteries were severely overcrowded, starting to cause diseases to their living neighbours. It was then decided to turn the catacombs into common graveyard and transfer the bones underground. Additionally the underground space has been used for other purposes, such as covert during the Second World War. A small part of the catacombs have been open to public already since mid-19th century.
Public entrance can be recognised only by a long winding queue in front of it. Other than that it´s just an unremarkable black door of a random small house with a spiral staircase leading underground as you enter. The corridors are cut off with prison doors that trigger paranoid thoughts of getting locked up for good. However, excitement beats claustrophobia, urging to continue deeper and deeper underground.
“Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.”
Bones of approximately six million people are laid out as straight wall of 18-27 meters in width, next to the side of a kilometer long passage. All of the bones are systematically grouped according to the cemetery where they are from. The first impression is quite appalling, but it is easy to get used to the surroundings. After a while you tend to forget that these bones ever had in fact belonged to people and this seems to be just part of setting.
Most of the catacombs are closed to public. Despite it being illegal there are several secretive bands forming a subculture of cataphiles. Those are the people deeply into discovering catacombs through and through, having carefully mapped out the entire area. There is a danger of getting lost underground without knowing the passages. In the shadows of the night cataphiles crawl underground using drains and ventilation shafts. Although it is easy to imagine people holding extreme rituals, the main interest of cataphiles is just discovering secret passages, having underground picnics or throwing raves. Some of them even live there.
In 2004 police in Paris had discovered a fully equipped cinema with a small couscous restaurant in a large and previously uncharted cavern. It looked like an underground amphitheatre, with terraces cut into the rock and chairs. The whole thing ran off a professionally installed electricity system with several phone lines underground. There was a selection of movies from 1950s film noir classics to more recent thrillers. None of the films were banned or even offensive according to the spokesman. Three days later, when the police returned to investigate further, the place was cleared out with all of the phone and electricity lines cut off. On the floor they found a sign “Do not try to find us”.
Looking at Parisian catacombs from the style perspective, Alexander McQueen´ s sculls come to mind. Particularly his men´s AW 10/11 collection that was directly inspired of the catacombs with graphic prints on the suits.
Recently Riina O had a lookbook shoot collaboration with Belle Sauvage. Some of their AW 15/16 dresses suggested they had also used catacombs as one of their inspirations.