If your family was ever one of the few to own a century-old ball gown, chances are Cynthia Cooper knows about it.

The curator of dress, fashion and textiles at the McCord Stewart Social History Museum in Montreal has for three decades been studying the way garments shaped past people’s lives.

But in the fall of 2021, while Cooper was reviewing some of the museum’s archives for an upcoming exhibition on 19th- and 20th-century costume balls, she came across a photo of a dress she had not seen before.

The gown is made of light blue silk, embroidered with flower detailing and a cream-coloured lace collar and lace cuffs. It hung loosely on the woman wearing it and seemed to date back to the 1700s, though the picture was taken at a costume ball in 1927.

When a Canada-wide search through museum collections turned up nothing, Cooper grew intrigued and more determined to find the gown.

“It became a bit of an obsession,” Cooper said inside the McCord Stewart’s library, which encompasses her office and is where she conducts much of her research. “Most things of this date are in museums.”

This one, she ended up tracking to a basement in a village in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains.

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