Brow Beat

A Brief History of Cosmo Covers

Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 32 years, passed away Monday at the age of 90. She is not only credited with helping to jumpstart the sexual revolution—making it acceptable for young women to have sex and enjoy it without guilt—but also for transforming the previously bland Cosmopolitan into a racy, controversial, and wildly successful magazine empire.

A look back at Cosmo covers perfectly illustrates Brown’s sensibility, and just how much she changed the magazine. You can start with this May 1896 cover, in which Cosmo’s more genteel roots are clearly showing. Many of the articles concern fine art or otherwise polite society, and sexuality is completely absent, both in the copy and the illustration.

Fast-forward a half-century to this April 1956 edition, and we’re in the age of domestic bliss. The period’s interest in the surburban/urban divide is on full display in the content, and Doris Day exudes more wholesome health than alluring sex. 

Brown became editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan in 1965. Can you tell? The headlines are more overtly sexual than before (“single girls swing!”) and the cover model has a flirtier look than her predecessors.

By August 1968 cover, which looks remarkably like the ones on newsstands today, Brown’s sensibility had reached full bloom. The cover model, Heather Hewitt, described Brown as “an editorial genius and tireless promoter,” and her taste isn’t bad either. Publishing an excerpt of Gore Vidal’s controversial queer novel Myra Breckinridge in the same issue as a piece on The Graduate combines eroticism and culture in an irresistable package. 

As the 1970s arrived, sex became an even more prominent feature of the Cosmo cover. The gentle submission of the male model to the bikni-clad woman conveys female sexual empowerment. Also, notice the more chatty and unabashed tone of the content teasers—the vision Brown had for Cosmo displayed here would remain unchanged throughout her career and beyond.

A few months later, and we get another bikini-clad woman happily overshadowing her man. (Brown’s controversial and influential book Sex and the New Single Girl was published this year as well.)

The June 1975 cover bares more skin than ever.

The January 1980 cover sees mention of the famous Cosmo sex surveys; viriginty remains a major theme. 

In 1982, Brown published her take on the perennial topic of “having it all.” The moral shifts of the 1980s are evidenced by this cover’s question of whether maritial infidelity is ever justified.

The February 1990 cover features a woman of color as conceptions of beauty finally open up. 

1997 was the last year Brown held the top position at the magazine.

The June 2012 issue of Cosmo is perhaps overinsistant on the sexiness of it sex articles, but the essential aesthetic that Brown pioneered so many decades ago remains in place.

Previously: In Cosmo, “SEX” Is Always on Top