Emporium — Inside Albury’s Most Famous Department Store

A revealing look at the phenomenal rise of the department store, the advent of ready-to-wear clothing, and the proliferation of image-based advertising during the 20th century.

Emporium — Inside Albury’s Most Famous Department Store was an exhibition produced by Albury Library Museum. I wrote the text for the substantial exhibition catalogue, and consulted to curator Bridget Guthrie, outlining exhibition themes and listing artefacts for display. The exhibition has toured NSW and Victoria extensively since its launch in 2014, and the catalogue continues to sell.

Emporium

Background to the exhibition and catalogue

I was a student at Charles Sturt University when my academic supervisor, Ass. Prof. Bruce Pennay, drew my attention to S.M. Abikhair’s store. It was 1996 and the store was holding a closing-down sale. Albury Regional Museum had stepped in to acquire items of historical interest, while Dr Pennay was investigating the store’s early history. I visited the store to record its layout and interview shop employees and, in doing so, uncovered several stories around changes in the experience of shopping throughout the 20th century.

One of the most important stories concerned the way in which the department store was a source both of constraint and opportunity for women. In the highly lucrative area of women’s fashion and intimate apparel, department stores implicitly instructed women on socially sanctioned ideals of beauty; while their various departments in manchester, children’s wear and haberdashery laid bare the expectations of domesticity. However, the fleeting allure of the latest trends in fashion, the seductive possibility of being able to transform one’s appearance, the creative outlet of selecting and creating decor to beautify the home, and the personal autonomy associated with making purchases for the wellbeing of the family, proved not only enticing but also liberating for generations of women, who found personal satisfaction as shoppers as well as a new avenue for employment as shop assistants.

The store was also a focal point for telling the story of the Abikhair family — a story early Lebanese migrants, and of how these migrants succeeded in the face of discrimination in early 20th century Australia.

Almost 20 years later, Albury Library Museum involved me in putting together an exhibition of the artefacts collected in 1996, and telling their story.

This project also gave me the opportunity to talk to camera in a video made to interpret the exhibition, produced by Nomad Films.