Emporium exhibit at Rydalmere’s Whitlam Institute’s Margaret Whitlam Galleries

OLD SCHOOL: Eric Sidoti said post-war Australia saw traditional skills such as sewing and baking become less important as a means of defining a woman’s value.

OLD SCHOOL: Eric Sidoti said post-war Australia saw traditional skills such as sewing and baking become less important as a means of defining a woman’s value.

The glamour and optimism of the 1950s is sewn into the haberdashery, merchandise and advertising on display as part of the exhibition Emporium.

The touring exhibit has arrived at Rydalmere’s Whitlam Institute’s Margaret Whitlam Galleries and recreates Albury’s first and most famous department store, Abikhair’s Emporium.

The family business, run by Syrian immigrant Saad Milham Abikhair and his wife Shefia, quickly became known for its personal service, quality and vast array of goods.

For almost 70 years Abikhair’s was the region’s mixed-class department store and a must-visit destination for men and women who could find something to their liking, regardless of their economic background.

Eric Sidoti, director of the Whitlam Institute, said the advent of the department store reflected a shift in social attitudes in Australia, where shopping was seen as a form of entertainment – a social occasion rather than simply a necessity.

“In cities and regional centres right across the country, department stores popped up to service our growing fascination with consumer goods,” he said.

“It wasn’t until the late 1950s that Australia got its first shopping centres but even then the grand old department stores were akin to civic institutions.

“The Emporium exhibition gives us a glimpse back to that time of old-fashioned customer service and glamourous advertising, but it also reveals changing attitudes to consumerism, the family, and the role of women in Australian society.”

During the Emporium’s glory days, women were the household’s primary shoppers, who were expected to buy for themselves, children, husbands and their homes. 

The ability to make autonomous decisions about their purchases provided a huge amount of satisfaction for women of the day, and gave them an identity not usually afforded through domestic life.

Shefia Abikhair recognised this and the store’s clever advertising appealed to women from all walks of life.

Shop assistants became specialists in stocking and fitting intimate apparel and they even began employing single women, although they were expected to retire when they married.

Abikhair’s Emporium closed in 1996 when Albury Council acquired a huge selection of advertising and original merchandise for its museum collection.

  • Runs from April to June 23. Free. Whitlam Institute & Margaret Whitlam Galleries, Female Orphan School, WSU, corner James Ruse Drive and Victoria Road, Rydalmere. Open Thursdays and Fridays, 10am to 4pm and the second Saturday of each month, 11am to 4pm.
FLASHBACK: Abikhair’s reputation for good quality at reasonable prices was an important factor at a time when a woman’s choice of store reflected her financial worth.

FLASHBACK: Abikhair’s reputation for good quality at reasonable prices was an important factor at a time when a woman’s choice of store reflected her financial worth.