At a summer dance being hosted at a country club, teenagers from well-to-do families flirt, dance, and socialize in rituals incomprehensible to the older guests. Standing out from this crowd is Bernice, an awkward 18-year-old girl whose unworldly ways and old-fashioned values clash with the modern manners of her peers. She is staying with her cousin Marjorie for yet another summer—and though the vivacious Marjorie has subtly tried to set Bernice on the path to social success, Bernice continues to falter at every step. Despite her beauty, she is hopelessly unpopular, boring every one of her dance partners. Warren McIntyre, Marjorie’s childhood friend, has made a habit of dancing with Bernice in order to win Marjorie’s good graces—but even Warren, considered by all to be a handsome young man and a fine prospect, finds no success with her. Though they dance, Bernice cannot keep pace with Warren’s attempt at flirting, and the two descend once more into dull, listless small talk.
Late that night, after the dance has ended, Bernice overhears Marjorie and her mother, Mrs. Harvey, discussing her in private. Though Mrs. Harvey praises Bernice for her ladylike manners and sweet disposition, just as many adults have, Marjorie quickly dismisses these qualities as old-fashioned, unappealing, and indicative of a weak, self-righteous character. Bernice hears her cousin mock her, disavow her as a lost cause, and even indulge in some racist speculation on her ancestry.
The following morning, Bernice confronts Marjorie about this conversation. She threatens to leave immediately—and Marjorie, far from feeling embarrassed about it, readily encourages her to do so. The two girls abide by opposite ideas of what femininity should be: in tears, Bernice invokes time-honored sentiments of female camaraderie, while Marjorie firmly states that the traditional “ladylike” woman is a bland, useless creature who lacks any real personality, and that whatever moral high ground Bernice claims over lively, flirty, opinionated girls like Marjorie is founded in mere jealousy. Bernice, devastated, secludes herself for some time, but eventually she returns to Marjorie with a proposal.
Hurt though she is, Bernice admits to finding herself at a loss as to why she is so unpopular. Desperate for some relief, she agrees to unquestioningly follow Marjorie’s advice on fashion, conduct, and anything else pertinent to solving this problem. In response, Marjorie raises the question of whether Bernice should get her hair cut in a more fashionable bob. Even though she’s horrified at this prospect, Bernice agrees to consider it. Soon this hypothetical haircut becomes a tantalizing piece of gossip that Bernice, at Marjorie’s instruction, can use to attract attention. Following Marjorie’s precise coaching, including a script sprinkled with witty quotes from Oscar Wilde, Bernice soon achieves popularity among the other teenagers. Where before she had only a few dance partners, none repeating, she now finds herself “cut in” on constantly, the boys eager to listen to her. Though she falters a bit at first, she gradually learns self-confidence and an internal sense of social ease.
Eventually Bernice comes to attract the attention of Warren McIntyre, who considers Bernice nearly as appealing as the ever-distant Marjorie. Jealous, and embarrassed by the ensuing gossip, Marjorie then turns against Bernice. She undercuts her socially wherever possible, and calls her promise to cut her hair a bluff. Embarrassed, and backed into a corner, Bernice agrees to get her hair bobbed, despite knowing that it will certainly not flatter her. A crowd gathers at the barbershop to watch the spectacle. In the end, it is Marjorie’s goading smile that pushes Bernice to commit to the haircut—and when it proves embarrassingly ugly to all present, especially Warren, Bernice finds herself a social outcast once more.
As the insidiousness of Marjorie’s betrayal becomes clearer in the following days, Bernice decides to get revenge. Late at night, she packs her bags and writes a farewell note to her aunt, explaining that she will be returning home. Then she sneaks into Marjorie’s room, stealthily cuts her braids off with a pair of scissors, and makes her way to the train station by herself. Free, happy, delighted at her mischief, Bernice tosses the cut braids onto Warren’s front porch as she passes, and walks on with new confidence and strength.