Ask Vance: Levy's Ladies Toggery – Memphis Magazine

Our history expert solves local mysteries: who, what, when, where, why. and why not. Well, sometimes.
February 27, 2023
8:00 AM
photograph by vance lauderdale
Dear T.L.: What you’ve discovered is the logo of a high-class clothing store “that would have ranked with the best in all of America.” That’s a bold claim, but in 1930 that’s how The Commercial Appeal described Levy’s Ladies Toggery, “where nothing has been spared to make the new store a credit to the labor and integrity of the Levy Brothers.”
The curious symbols on that plaque, by the way, depict a woman’s hat, a box with a ribbon, a high-heeled shoe (that one is obvious), and a fur stole. All of these items — and many more — could be purchased at Levy’s. Here’s how it all came about.
In 1881, Joseph B. Levy left his home in the Alsace region of France and immigrated to Memphis. According to company histories, “he sensed opportunity in the Mid-South capital that had weathered the ravages of a civil war and disastrous yellow fever epidemics.” He must have liked what he found here, because he quickly summoned his younger brother, Leo E. Levy, to join him.
photograph by vance lauderdale
The old Levy’s Ladies Toggery is hard to miss, an imposing (and empty) building at the southeast corner of Main and Union.
Within a year, the Levys opened a small clothing store at Main and Calhoun, “founded on the same principle of quality merchandising that was to prove the lodestone of later success.” That success came quickly. In 1903, they opened a larger store at 100 South Main, with a special focus on high-end women’s fashions.
A disaster almost ended their enterprise when a 1915 fire damaged that building. The Levy brothers rebuilt the store and reopened it within a few months, and even expanded by purchasing the property next door.
The biggest event in the company’s history came in 1929, when the brothers purchased the property at 82 South Main. Originally constructed in the late 1800s, the building had long been home to Kress, before that business moved into its stunning new home, just dripping with colorful terra-cotta, across from Court Square.
When the brothers opened the new store in 1930, Joseph Levy told reporters, “We are still old-fashioned, in the sense that we have never allowed quality to be replaced by price. We have never allowed reckless volume to replace fine merchandise. And we still believe in genuineness, honesty, and fair dealing.”
They transformed the old building into a modern retail establishment, but added personal touches that made it a charming place to shop. Noting a sales force of more than 100, newspapers reported, “These clerks have completed special training so they will be able to give customers expert assistance in making their selections and blending colors.”
photograph courtesy Memphis Public Libraries
In the 1930s, this billboard on Madison promised Levy’s customers a “Quantity of Quality.”
The ground floor offered accessories — jewelry, shoes, gloves, and toiletry items. The second floor was home to something called the Evening Salon, along with the junior department, a corset salon, and special fitting rooms, “done in a pastel shade, each a different color.” These included windows with Venetian blinds, “to allow customers to view their dresses in natural light.” And just to show what an exclusive place this was, the Levy’s dressing-room policy was: “Only one evening dress will be shown to a customer at a time.”
The third floor held a lounge, the sports shop (“for outdoor lines”), a beauty salon, and company offices. According to the CA, “The sumptuously appointed store has been decorated in the Louis XVI motif with woodwork of walnut. The windows are carved in the Italian Renaissance idea, and rooms on the second floor will have hand-painted decorations and lighting fixtures imported from France.”
A Levy’s newspaper ad from 1939.
Levy’s held a grand opening on January 14, 1930. The CA observed that “matrons of society took part in a program when the store was formally presented to Memphis and Mayor Watkins Overton.” After that came an elaborate fashion show, as you might expect. Some of those fashions sound a bit, well, unusual. For example, “Breath-taking in their smartness are the stop-caution-go sports suits from Del Monte Hickey. The ‘stop’ costume is a sand-grey suit with a bright-red swagger coat. The ‘caution’ model is a grey suit with chamois for the yellow. And the ‘go’ outfit is a grey suit with a vivid green coat.”
Levy’s completed with other exclusive shops offering personalized service, such as Helen of Memphis, and the Levy Brothers soon acquired an adjacent building to the east, which became home to a men’s and boys’ department. By this time, they had dropped the quaint “Ladies Toggery” from the name, and the establishment became known as simply Levy’s.
Fur coats and other accessories played a major role in Levy’s sales. (Mother Lauderdale was particularly fond of her muskrat stole, hat, cape, coat, gloves, boots, belt, and earmuffs.) In 1936, the store converted its massive basement into the Levy’s Dry Cold Storage Vault for customers’ furs. Newspapers reported it “stands every test. It is burglar-proof, moth-proof, dust-proof, and heat-proof. It is ultra-modern, built of walls 13 inches thick, and lined with five inches of cork.” The refrigeration equipment kept the temperature inside at four degrees below zero, which seems awfully frigid to me — “equal to the melting of ten tons of ice daily.”
But why focus on keeping only the basement ice-cold? That same year, Levy’s “became the first ladies’ shop in Memphis to be cooled by conditioned air” and “one of the first in the nation to use the new cooling methods of the Carrier Corporation, Weathermakers to the World.”
Another ad from 1939. Every teen should have a suede jacket!
In 1950, the Levy Brothers announced bold plans to move beyond Downtown. They purchased property at the southwest corner of Union and McLean and announced plans for a “suburban” store. For some reason, they never followed through on this. Instead, a few years later, Leo Levy — Joseph had passed away sometime earlier — sold the Main Street property to Weiss Brothers, a national chain of retailers based in New York City. “If I were a younger man, or had children to carry on the business, I would never sell,” Leo told reporters. “But I will be 88 in December.” Even so, he promised to keep an office at the store, and “I’ll be out on the floor every day.”
The new owners introduced the Popular Price Shop, “the idea being that milady might welcome a chance to put together an ensemble in the moderate price range without doing a lot of walking.” This would allow for “quick assembly of an outfit.”
In 1960, Levy’s finally moved east, opening a second location in Poplar Plaza. The exterior featured an ultra-modern design, with glazed brick and backlighted metal panels. The interior was more traditional, “decorated in a Williamsburg effect with the use of sandblasted oak.” Next came a third store, in the newly opened Southland Mall.
By all standards, Levy’s was a success. In 1967, Harper’s Bazaar presented the owners with a medallion, declaring it one of the magazine’s “100 Stores of the Century.”
So where is Levy’s today? Well, customers won’t find one in Memphis. In 1971, those New York retailers changed the store name to Gus Mayer, linking it with others in that chain throughout the Southeast. I’m not sure why they bothered. Within a year, they closed the Main Street and Southland Mall stores. The Gus Mayer branch in Poplar Plaza managed to survive until 1985, when it closed as well.
In its day, Levy’s wasn’t just a shopping destination for “milady.” Elvis Presley even shopped there. The story goes that after he returned to Memphis from his stint in the Army, he strolled in one day, picked out some fancy shirts, and tossed a blank check on the counter. He had signed it, but the clerk protested, “Mr. Presley, you didn’t fill in the amount.” Walking away, the King of Rock-and-Roll responded, “Oh, I trust you.”
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, P.O. Box 1738, Memphis, TN 38101
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February 27, 2023
8:00 AM
March 2023
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