I Have No Idea What Goya’s Ghosts Is About


But the costumes are on point! Goya’s Ghosts came out back in 2006, and although I liked what I saw of the costumes, I was so confused by the plot and the lackluster reviews that I never bothered to watch it. Cue some Spanish history podcasts and an upcoming Regency weekend for which I’m making a ton of 1790s costumes, and I decided to fire it up. Overall? Great costumes, no idea what’s going on with the plot.

The film was directed by Miloš Forman (Amadeus, Valmont), so he knows his period costume flicks even if those didn’t have the most stellar of costumes. I’m totally unclear what the point of the film actually was, and while I could Google Forman’s thoughts on the film, I kind of think that most films should at least in some part speak for themselves. So, I’m not going to do the work for him! Basically, the film starts in 1792 with famed Spanish painter Francisco Goya (randomly played by Swede Stellan Skarsgård) painting a portrait of the daughter of a Spanish noble family, Inez (Natalie Portman), who comes under the fire of the Spanish Inquisition, led by a monk (Javier Bardem). She’s imprisoned for decades, Bardem’s character has a crisis of faith and leaves Spain, only to come back in 1808 when Napoleon’s troops invade. Inez finally gets out of prison, she’s got a daughter (Alicia, also played by Portman) who’s working as a prostitute. Goya tries to help Inez track down her daughter, while Bardem’s character tries to make things difficult and ends up himself the target of the Spanish Inquisition. Good lord (literally?)! WHAT point is this trying to make? Oh, and of course, this is all fictional, so once again, I ask, WHYYYY?

Luckily the film’s costumes were designed by Yvonne Blake (Nicholas and Alexandra, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, Flesh+Blood), and they are pretty damn spot on for 1792 and 1808 Spain. So let’s just ignore the pointless plot and look at the costumes, shall we? I can’t find much information from Blake herself on the designs, other than that she was aiming for realistic and really looking to Goya’s paintings as sources, which she did VERY successfully:

“When I designed Goya’s Ghosts, of course, Goya’s paintings were my reference so the colors are much more subtle and the entire film looks much more believable, much more real” (FilmCraft: Costume Design).

“I think that, concerning the costume, my best work is Goya’s Ghosts (2006) because the result was really realistic. It is also quite a recent film. In my opinion, our work improves as we get older; we feel more secure as we have a better control of our work. When I was young, I felt so insecure. I continue being insecure, but it is a different matter. Now, I organise myself in a different way and I enjoy it more. I particularly enjoyed that film; working with Milos Forman was a great pleasure; he is a great director. Probably, this is the work I feel most proud of” (Universitat de Barcelona interview with Yvonne Blake).

The men’s costumes (those that aren’t religious) are nicely done for the era:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Stripey, double-breasted waistcoat cut straight across at the bottom — on trend for 1790s.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

But this costume, with its very typically Spanish trims and the candle-hat, is fab, because:

Self-portrait in the Studio by Francisco Goya, 1790-95, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

It’s a reproduction of this self-portrait by Goya! Self-portrait in the Studio by Francisco Goya, 1790-95, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Bardem is mostly in monk’s robes until the 1808 scenes, at which point he’s in slightly dated (more Directoire/1790s than Empire/1800s) clothes, but which are lovely:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

But, let’s get to the good stuff, shall we? Natalie Portman plays Inez, daughter of a noble family. We first meet her in a stripey dress, dark waistcoat-y thing, and lace veil:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

No waistcoat?

2006 Goya's Ghosts

With waistcoat?

Señora Sabasa Garcia by Francisco Goya, c. 1806-11, National Gallery of Art

This costume is clearly very inspired by a real Goya portrait, although it’s from more than a decade later than 1792: Señora Sabasa Garcia by Francisco Goya, c. 1806-11, National Gallery of Art

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Nonetheless, color me impressed that the faux-period paintings don’t suck the way they usually do!

What got me excited was the “maja” style dress worn by Portman. “Majos” (men) and “majas” (women) were lower class Spaniards, particularly from Madrid, who wore elaborate outfits with some very unique elements that, along with their mannerisms, were read as flamboyant and cocky. I’ll discuss the specifics of the style in a moment, but for now, know that the majas were considered seductive, flirty, and desirable, and as such their dress was often adapted by the Spanish upper classes. You can read more about maja dress and Goya’s paintings in Aileen Ribeiro’s essay, “Fashioning the Feminine: Dress in Goya’s Portraits of Women,” in Goya: Images of Women, as well as Susannah Worth’s (very long) Ph.D. dissertation, “Andalusian dress and the Andalusian image of Spain: 1759—1936.” Other sources, which you’ll probably have to get from a library or pay for, include:

  • Noyes, Dorothy. “La Maja Vestida: Dress as Resistance to Enlightenment in Late-18th-Century Madrid.” Journal of American Folklore 111:440 (1998): 197-217.
  • Worth, Susannah and Lucy R. Sibley. “Maja Dress and the Andalusian Image of Spain.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 12:4 (1994): 51-60.
  • Zenardi, T.  “Fashioning the Duchess of Alba:  Vicarious Thrills and Sartorial Flirtations During the Spanish Enlightenment.”  Fashion Theory 14:1 (March 2010):  7-44.

I’ve discussed maja dress a bit in reviews previously, but I’d like to give a few more details so that you know why these costumes made me so happy! Maja dress (which continued to be worn through the 19th century) included:

  • Menswear-inspired jackets, often with revers (turnbacks), buttons, and cutaway front revealing a waistcoat:
Jacket, 1790-1815, Centre de Documentacio i Museu Textil

Jacket, 1790-1815, Centre de Documentacio i Museu Textil

  • Pleated ribbon trims, particularly at the armhole:
Jacket, 1750-99, Centre de Documentacio i Museu Textil

This is a man’s coat, but it gives you a good idea of the armhole trim | Jacket, 1750-99, Centre de Documentacio i Museu Textil

  • Angular stylings, like the points on this waistcoat:
Waistcoat, 1800-10, Centre de Documentacio i Museu Textil

I think this is probably a man’s waistcoat, but nonetheless! Waistcoat, 1800-10, Centre de Documentacio i Museu Textil

  • Ankle-length, very decorated skirts called “basquiña” that, by showing the ankles, were considered very saucy:
Baile a orillas del Manzanares by Francisco Goya, 1777, Museo del Prado.

Baile a orillas del Manzanares by Francisco Goya, 1777, Museo del Prado.

  • The “cofia,” a cap that appears to have been made either of silk taffeta or netted cords trimmed with a bunch of ribbon bows at the top and a tassel at the bottom:
Francisco de Goya, The Straw Manikin, 1791-92, Museo del Prado

Francisco de Goya, The Straw Manikin, 1791-92, Museo del Prado

Cofia, c. 1775-99, Museo del Traje

Cofia, c. 1775-99, Museo del Traje

  • The mantilla, the famous long lace veil:
Majas on a Balcony by Francisco Goya, 1800-12, via Wikimedia Commons

Majas on a Balcony by Francisco Goya, 1800-12, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, let’s look at Blake’s designs for Portman’s two characters and compare them with the images above!

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Portman’s first ensemble includes a jacket with cutaway opening, and a waistcoat with all those pointy bits seen above.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

She’s also wearing a really damn good coifa, which is exciting given some the later hair.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

This purple ensemble is SO GOOD, why couldn’t they put her hair up? Nonetheless, check out the menswear-style waistcoat with all its embroidery…

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Embroidery closeup!

Goya's Ghosts (2006)

The undergown is a sheer striped white and purple (or is it a sheer white on white OVER something purple?).

2006 Goya's Ghosts

She then pairs it with a cutaway purple velvet jacket, itself with another super-pointy collar.

Goya's Ghosts (2006)
Goya's Ghosts (2006)

For sure, I’m now thinking the skirt at least is a sheer striped white fabric over a solid purple.

Now we move to 1808, and Portman is playing Inez’s daughter, Alicia. Her main dress caused ALL SORTS of raised eyebrows when stills first came out — trust me, I remember:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

It’s got a high Regency waistline, and that elaborate ribbon shoulder trim that’s so typically maja.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

But the ball fringe overskirt made us all freak out!

Jubón y basquiña - Goyesco, 1801-1810 - Museo del Traje

Until some smarty-pants discovered it’s a direct recreation of this real maja gown from a Spanish costume museum: Jubón y basquiña, 1801-1810, Museo del Traje

Jubón y basquiña, 1801-1810, Museo del Traje

I’ve seen mid-19th century examples of ball-fringe overskirts, so this was clearly a thing! Jubón y basquiña, 1801-1810, Museo del Traje

2006 Goya's Ghosts

A bit more of that fabulous shoulder trim.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

And the back is on point, with its braid trim and cute little tail.

Francisco Goya, The Clothed Maja, 1800-07, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando/Museo del Prado

It also reminders me somewhat of Goya’s famous painting: Goya, The Clothed Maja, c. 1815.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Alicia later hooks up with the French military. Note her huge black lace veil and short skirt length.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

The over-bodice or robe is embroidered.

Portrait of Doña Isabel Cobos de Porcel by Francisco Goya, c. 1805, National Gallery

The mantilla is a super typical style and reminds me of this: Portrait of Doña Isabel Cobos de Porcel by Francisco Goya, c. 1805, National Gallery

Bodice, Centre de Documentació i Museu Tèxtil - 1795-1808.

You see a lot of embroidered (and spangled) bodices and spencers in Spanish museum collections. Bodice, Centre de Documentació i Museu Tèxtil – 1795-1808.

2006 Goya's Ghosts

This outfit is never seen on screen, but I’m thinking it was worn by Alicia (note the darker hair). It’s got the multi-point collar and ribbon shoulder trim.

Now, a look at some other characters. RANDY QUAID plays King Carlos IV, and color me shocked that he’s just fine in the role!

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Quaid as the Spanish king.

Charles IV in Red by Francisco Goya, 1789, Museo del Prado

The real deal, painted by Goya: Charles IV in Red by Francisco Goya, 1789, Museo del Prado

Inez’s family is only seen in the 1792 scenes, and they’re dressed beautifully. Mom is still rocking the late 1780s look, which makes sense given her age:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

So many lovely elements! Stripes, bows, poufy cap, buttons, excellent hair…

2006 Goya's Ghosts

Mom’s cap! Is fabulous!

2006 Goya's Ghosts

We don’t see much of these outfits on screen. Dad’s hair is SO nicely styled! This is exactly when wigs were going out of fashion for men, but they still styled their hair in the same styles.

Queen María Luisa shows up as Goya is painting her:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

In an equestrian portrait, that’s yet another spot on reproduction:

Equestrian portrait of Maria Luisa of Parma by Francisco Goya, 1799, Museo del Prado

Equestrian portrait of Maria Luisa of Parma by Francisco Goya, 1799, Museo del Prado

2006 Goya's Ghosts

She wears this for the unveiling of the finished portrait.

And, Joseph Bonaparte (short-lived king of Spain) and his family/retinue:

2006 Goya's Ghosts

I can’t really recommend the film as a film per se, but I did love the costumes, so I’ll let you decide whether to give this one a whirl!

Have you seen Goya’s Ghosts? Do you have any idea what the point of the movie was?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

9 Responses

  1. Sam Marchiony

    Natalie Portman is my eternal WCW, so I watched this for her, and what I did follow of the plot made me really sad, because Inez just gets put through so much awful stuff for no real reason. Then again, is it really a Natalie Portman movie if she doesn’t do that thing where her eyebrows try to bend to 90 degrees while she cries?

  2. Aleko

    Those are not “French military”; they are British infantry officers. Their uniforms aren’t the greatest: the British officer’s coat wasn’t cut square across the waist like that of the man on the left, and the thick white edging is an absolute no-no; and he seems to have forgotten his magenta sprang-silk sash when he got dressed in the morning. The man on the right is wearing a gorget – a sign that he is on duty, and therefore has no business to be hanging out with floozies! – but otherwise is passable. Except that both of them are wearing cavalry boots, and not even British-style ones at that.

    And the man in a red coat in the last picture isn’t part of King Ferdinand’sa retinue; he’s obviously supposed to be the Duke of Wellington. Compare this 1804 portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arthur_Wellesley,_1st_Duke_of_Wellington_by_Robert_Home.jpg.
    The actor is wearing his coat ‘triangled’ – buttoned only 3/4 of the way up and the top corners of the lapels turned back to show a triangle of the linings, which are the same blue as the collar and cuffs and are embroidered the same way as the outside of the lining. (Except they obviously decided they weren’t going to pay for gold embroidery for an actor who probably was only in one scene so they just stitched on some gold lace* instead. Fair enough.) The triangles are sitting oddly low (see this for comparison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Murray_(British_Army_officer)#/media/File:General_George_Murray_(1772-1846),_by_John_Hoppner.jpg
    – which means that they’ve had to stitch his Star of the Order of the Bath rather too low. But for a Spanish costumier unfamiliar with the specifically British military look of the period, it’s not bad. You can see who he’s meant to be.

    • Kendra

      Yup, I misremembered — Alicia hooks up with the Brits, who are fighting the French in Spain. Clearly I know zero about military uniforms, so the visual didn’t remind me!

  3. Roxana

    The Spanish Inquisition going unexpectedly after a minor Gentlewoman strikes me as improbable unless she’s actively preaching heresy. The inquisition was mainly an instrument of royal control. A young woman was most unlikely to attract their attention given the social limitations placed on women unless she’s engaged in heresy or high level political intrigue.

  4. Julia

    When I watched Goya’s Ghosts when IT came out, I was a huge fan of Goya’s paintings. I interpreted the film as a sort of mosaic of contemporary scenes that figure in Goya’s paintings : the inquisition, war and ist horrors, spanish enlightenment and proto-nationalism (Maya costumes), French occupation and the catholic backlash.

  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    Like Julia above, I saw the movie not long after it came out. I remember it as being slow, not engaging, and miscast. I don’t know if miscast is the correct word, as I think most of the actors were pretty good with their roles, but overall there was no chemistry. Also, I couldn’t get over how weird Natalie Portman looked with black hair and a spray tan. It’s one of those movies that every now and then I think I’ll try to give it a second chance, but then I get tired just thinking about it. Also, I agree with Julia’s interpretation above, but even “understanding” the film on that level didn’t make me enjoy it.

  6. Damnitz

    The costumes are looking a lot better then in most of Forman’s film. I have to admit that I didn’t saw it in the cinema because I noticed that Forman was the director and I don’t like “Amadeus” or “Valmont” and Forman’s way of storytelling. However Goya is a very interesting figure for filmmakers and there were interesting costumes during the period – some aspects to make it very interesting to portray Goya as a person living between art and court during a period of war and extreme violence.

    I prefer Goya’s earlier paintings, although I’m not a huge fan of his style.

  7. Diana92

    The man at the balcony in the last photo is not Bepe Botella ( Joseph Bonaparte was called like that in Madrid ) but king Ferdinand VII, the other’s are his nephew Charles of Parma, possibly his brother and maybe her sisters.
    He’s like the famous painting made by Goya himself in the same year, so another quote about a future Goya’s work