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Consider the cellphone holster

A history of the most dad accessory of all time.

A cellphone holster, presumably worn by a dad.
Getty Images/Glowimages RF
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The Motorola Razr hit the market in the summer of 2004, and immediately it was a very big deal. This was the first cellphone whose fashionability was its main selling point, an object that was worth shelling out markedly more money for simply because it looked cool. The strategy worked: Motorola went on to sell more than 100 million of them, and the Razr became the best-selling flip phone in history.

The Razr succeeded because it was sleek, which is to say that it was skinny, which is also to say that it could fit in your pants pocket without being extremely uncomfortable. While this was good news for both Motorola and people who dislike giant bricks that press against their bellies when they sit down, it was not good for the cellphone holster industry.

Using the term “cellphone holster industry” here, however, implies that there is one, which itself would be kind of a lie. Where did cellphone holsters come from? Conceptually, they come from gun holsters, the apparatus gun owners hang around their waists to be able to reach their weapons with ease. Historically, cellphone holsters popped up after the rise and fall of car phones, when more people were suddenly expected to carry around an entirely new thing all the time. While most pagers came with clips that attached to one’s clothing, cellphones did not; therefore, a holster was useful.

On a more corporeal level, however, cellphone holsters are a mystery. Can you name a cellphone holster brand? You cannot. Instead, these objects seem to exist only in hardware stores or the local T-Mobile outpost or in the saddest Amazon searches of all time, made by companies whose names no one has ever bothered to learn. But in the mid-’90s and early 2000s, the cellphone holster was an inescapable object of necessary evil for a very specific type of person: people who had to carry cellphones for professional purposes, who did not, for reasons likely having to do with strict gender expectations, have purses, and who also did not care that cellphone holsters are very dorky.

In other words, dads.

That the cellphone holster is so closely associated with fathers has to do with how cellphones were originally marketed in the 1980s — to businessmen, first and foremost. Early magazine advertisements for mobile devices almost exclusively featured those phones carried by men in suits; even the disembodied (male) hands grasping them belonged to people in blazers and ties. Back then, these same advertisements also touted their latest models as “slim,” “light,” and “so compact it fits right in your pocket,” which is hilarious to anyone who knows what cellphones looked like in the ’80s.

Yet as far as companies went to build phones that could indeed “fit right in your pocket” throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the fact remained that having anything larger than a candy bar in one’s pocket is rather bothersome. I do not know where or when the very first cellphone holster came from, but I do know that at least one person began to wear them around this time, and that person is my dad, Mark Jennings.

“I don’t know if you remember, but I used to have a car-mount phone,” he says. (I remembered!) “When we got rid of that, we had handheld phones that were these big blobs that didn’t fit well in your pocket. And because the number pad wasn’t covered, I used to butt-dial people all the time.”

Thus, he’d acquired about two or three cellphone holsters from the mid- to late ’90s that he picked up from the Verizon store for about 10 bucks. And he was not alone, even though he acknowledges that it was somewhat of an aesthetic sacrifice. “Other people were wearing them at the time. It was more of a function of necessity. It certainly wasn’t a fashion statement, it was like, ‘I need this phone, it sucks to carry it around in my pocket, and what else am I gonna do?’”

But there is another group of people for whom the cellphone holster’s aesthetic is not a detriment but an asset: men who buy items like tactical pants and maybe also own guns. These men are perhaps the most visible in cellphone holster culture — search “cellphone holster” on YouTube and you will likely find the following: an ad for a tactical phone holster published by a brand that makes gun accessories, a menswear advice channel run by an ex-military officer, and many tutorials on how to make one’s own leather phone holster, which presumes the viewer has any business crafting something out of leather. Watching too many of them will ruin your YouTube algorithm, and unfortunately now I’m regularly suggested videos like “Top Home Security Tips With John Lovell.”

You will also see a charming video in which a man spends two minutes reviewing a cellphone holster called the Answer 500 (a name that works on two levels! Think about it!) from inside his car, which has more than 18,000 views. The creator, who goes by “SafetyMan,” says he loves the Answer 500 because it’s “rugged,” it’s 100 percent made in the USA, and you can easily slip it on over a belt. The product description online echoes these sentiments, calling it an “easy one-handed operation” made from MIL-SPEC (i.e., US military standard) materials.

The maker of the Answer 500 is an Oregon-based company called Simple.Be, founded by Brett Hamilton. Hamilton was working in IT before he became a professional holster maker, and constant car trips made getting his phone out of his pocket particularly cumbersome. He fashioned a holster for himself using the sewing knowledge he’d learned in Sea Scouts (which, yes, is nautical Boy Scouts), and launched the company in 2013.

The Answer 500.

Though he declined to share sales numbers, Hamilton attributes his products’ success to the fact that unlike the typical horizontal cellphone holsters, his were vertical, inspired by the low-slung gun holsters of the Old West. This approach also resonates with one of his most enthusiastic customer bases: gun guys.

“There’s a lot of overlap between [our customers and] everyday carry people, guys who have pocket knives, guns, and tactical flashlights. There’s a whole culture of that,” he says. “They’re looking for durability, made in the USA, matte black or earthy colorways — the aesthetic is the off-road, tactical look. It’s not ‘shiny leather business guy.’”

Unlike my dad, these customers are also not sheepish that they are wearing holsters for their cellphone. “That was something I thought was going to be a hurdle, that we were going to have to get over a taboo,” Hamilton says with a laugh. “But I don’t hear a lot from customers who think [cellphone holsters] are dorky, but those are probably the people who aren’t looking anyway.”

And though 2013 — only one year before the iPhone 6 Plus was released — seems like a very weird time to launch a cellphone holster company, Hamilton says business boomed. “That phone was immensely bigger than anything else. All of a sudden, people were like, ‘I can’t fit this in my pocket, what am I gonna do?’ And I’m like, ‘Ah! We have this holster!’” he says. “It was a solution to a problem that didn’t hit everybody until the phones got really big, and we were ready to go. And now, we’re the best holster on the market.”

We are living in a world in which the cellphone holster could foreseeably return en masse, all thanks to the fact that Apple wants its phones to be too enormous to fit anywhere on the human body. No longer is “fitting right in your pocket” a selling point for phone brands; instead, they now seem to market solely to the hugest-handed members of society. Pockets, however, can only get so big.

Kendall Jenner wearing a fanny pack that looks suspiciously like a cellphone holster.
Gotham/GC Images

Coincidentally, this also aligns with the unlikely resurgence of another extremely maligned trend from the ’90s: the fanny pack. Rebranded as “belt bags,” the fanny packs of the late 2010s are chic (and often expensive) and can’t fit much more than an iPhone in them anyway. Paired with the rise of yeehaw couture, or irony-tinged Western fashion, the cellphone holster feels as primed for a comeback as ever.

But that’s not the reason my dad wants one, of course. Like all stereotypical fathers, mine does not care that Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X are fashion icons now; instead, he just wants an easy place to put his phone. “I just got an iPhone XR, and it’s huge!” he says. “I haven’t looked at what the holsters look like these days, but I’d probably get something that hung off a belt. If it wasn’t really obnoxious, that would be okay.”

I told Hamilton that my dad was in the market, and he laughed. “That’s probably the most common person-to-person feedback I get,” he says. “I was on jury duty a couple weeks ago, and one of my fellow jurors was like, ‘That’s awesome, I’m gonna get one for my dad!’ And I was like, ‘god.’”

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