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Also called a side comb or decorative comb, a French comb is primarily used to hold back hair as opposed to grooming or styling it. It is less wide than a grooming comb and usually has just a few long teeth. These are designed to penetrate deep into folded hair to fasten it in place.
Unlike a conventional comb, a French comb doesn't have a handle, closely-spaced combing teeth, or anything that facilitates grooming or styling hair. Instead, it's curved so that it contours to the head while fastening fringe hair, buns, or bangs. After the hair has been styled, French combs are left in the hair as decorative fasteners.
If used correctly, a French comb will pin back loose hair on the side, front, or back of the head. Very often it will help to hold back a hairstyle called an updo, which is when long hairs are gathered and lifted up, or folded tightly against the head, instead of falling to the shoulders. An updo, of which there are many varieties, keeps the hair in place and out of the way in the form of various twists, braids, folds, and buns. The French twist, in particular, is a popular updo that takes advantage of French combs.
A French comb or several French combs can be used instead of bands or hair claws to style different types of updos ranging from simple to elaborate depending on the occasion. Often stylists using side combs will manipulate hair into complicated French twists for formal events such as weddings. How well French combs work often depends on being able to create enough tension between the combs and the hair styles, which have very particular folds, twists, and tucks.
There are also French combs with special teeth that make it easier to grab hair. Such a comb has a tighter middle section along its teeth, which have been specifically designed to easily penetrate the hair, pulling it fast as the comb enters deeper. These combs are often described as having flex teeth or a self grip. Other varieties of French combs are more decorative in nature and might be slightly less functional, although they're still sometimes used for formal events.
A decorative French comb that is an antique or made from precious materials can be worth a great deal. Some collector-quality French combs are made of gold and silver and include precious gems or artwork. There are also art deco French combs and French combs made from natural materials like horn. French combs range from very affordable manufactured plastic combs, to midrange handmade or natural combs, to very expensive and even priceless antiques.