There is a wonderful children’s book, Agatha’s Feather Bed, that is built on a refrain we could all stand to repeat from time to time: “Everything comes from something. Nothing comes from nothing.” Another way to say it might be that everything begins somewhere, with someone — that almost nothing is really new, but a reimagining of whatever came before. That is certainly the case with fashion. And yet, so often we neglect to acknowledge the origins of a trend, seeing only the ripples instead of searching for the place where the pebble hit the water.
Anita Pallenberg — the actress, model, quintessential girl-with-the-band, and under-sung fashion icon — was one such small rock, whose sartorial influence has ringed out through the decades. She passed away this week at the age of 73. But her legacy will live on until the last slip dress is retired and tucked away in a drawer.
Sometimes known as the sixth Rolling Stone, she once said her style relied on “boots, belts, cashmere, hats; sunglasses, furs, as well.” The godmother of bohemian chic, Pallenberg was wearing gossamer caftans out on the town before Alexa Chung was a tiny mass of molecules; her mix-and-mash of high and low, pirate shirts and miniskirts, and fearlessness when it came to feather boas remain unmatched to this day. And while she never went the designer route herself, she will nevertheless go down in fashion history because she lent her style to rock n’ roll by originating the look that ultimately became synonymous with the Rolling Stones.
Pallenberg first became connected to the band as a teenager, when she sneaked backstage at a Stones show in Munich and — legend has it — offered up weed to then-frontman Brian Jones. Their whirlwind relationship began that very night, though it was short-lived: Soon, Pallenberg became romantically linked to Keith Richards, a longterm paramour with whom she went on to have three children. In his 2010 autobiography, Richards wrote of his former flame: “She knew everything and she could say it in five languages. She scared the pants off me.”
He meant that figuratively. But in a way that statement was literally true: The ensembles that Richards and the rest of the musicians came to be known for — including Mick Jagger, whom Pallenberg was rumoured to have had an affair with, too — were borrowed straight from their muse’s wardrobe. Though she was largely uncredited as the stylist behind the band's signature look until years after the fact, it is impossible to ignore the way that her particular kind of fashionable flair translated to the ensembles they wore onstage and in the streets. The printed trousers and flowing shirts, a sort of Renaissance ‘60s style, might be the Stones’ trademark. But it was Pallenberg who came up with it in the first place.
While it’s easiest (read: laziest) to look back on her life through the contributions — and complications — she brought with her to the band, it’s an underestimation to paint her an Almost Famous-esque groupie. An actress and model in her own right, Pallenberg was described by her friend (and fellow Stones girlfriend) Marianne Faithfull as having an innate sort of “evil glamour.” For as long as she was in the public eye, there was something mesmerising about Pallenberg that went beyond her surface beauty — and a darkness to her magnetism.
Born in Rome in 1944 and shipped off to boarding school in Germany when she was a teen, Pallenberg was a wild child from an early age, and later an original member of Andy Warhol’s Factory studio set; she went on to appear in films such as Barbarella and Candy, alongside Marlon Brando, and became a sort of reality celebrity of her era. Her star climbed throughout the swinging ‘60s before it began to blink in the decade thereafter — a decade when she, like many of her contemporaries, was battling demons and shooting heroin to a degree that could have killed her many times over.
Around the same time — when Pallenberg was living in France with Richards, their children, and the rest of the band — her youngest child, a weeks-old baby boy, died. “I’m sure the drugs had something to do with it,” Pallenberg reportedly said, years later. “I always felt very, very bad about the whole thing.”
It took until the late ‘80s for her to finally go to rehab and kick the habit. Pallenberg had reportedly spent the years since chasing after grandkids, taking botanical drawing classes, spending time with friends, and riding her bicycle around Chelsea, where she lived. Which didn't mean that she receded from public life: From time to time, Pallenberg cropped up in pop culture, including one unforgettable episode of Absolutely Fabulous. But it was her fashion influence that continued to persist above all else. Beginning in the '90s, she became a muse for Vivienne Westwood and a model for designer Pam Hogg, taking to the catwalk in her rakish signature garb with a high-culture spin. Off the runway, she persisted as a style icon about town, often on the arm of Kate Moss, who considered her, across their generational divide, a friend as well as an inspiration.
But in the end, it's her style that has become her cultural legacy. Without Anita Pallenberg, there would likely be no Alexa Chung. Brands like Free People, too, owe a huge debt to the queen of gypsy luxe. As her friend, the actress Stella Schnabel posted on Instagram, the first announcement of Pallenberg’s passing, this week: “I have never met a woman quite like you Anita.” She was an original; the beginning of something altogether new.