GQ began as a trade publication called Apparel Arts in the 1930s. It was re-positioned as a consumer magazine in the late 1950s and re-named Gentleman's Quarterly; it was re-branded once again in the late 1960s when it officially became known simply as GQ. Covers from the 1950s and 1960s featured a varied mix of celebrities (e.g., Rock Hudson, Joe DiMaggio, Robert Goulet), jaunty models dressed like dandies and artistic covers with no models present. Then in the 1970s a change in style had covers mostly depicting couples - but with the women more or less in the role of accessory.
Male models in close-up populated most covers beginning in the late '70s and continuing into the '80s. Led by editor-in-chief Jack Haber, this was considered the magazine's overt gay phase and some say it peaked with the famous "New York Dazzle" cover. (That was the first issue of the magazine I purchased.)
After Conde Nast acquired the publicaiton in 1979 GQ's editorial content was broadened to cover other facets of a man's life. This was done to make it more palatable to a wider spectrum of advertisers, especially automakers in Detroit. (And to make it more appealing to heterosexual readers.) When it pitched itself to advertisers GQ more or less instituted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy as it pertained to its gay readership.
During this era publisher Steve Florio and editor Art Cooper took heat from its gay readership for turning its back on its core readers by giving the magazine somewhat of a scotch-and-cigars sensibility. (When I worked in the media department of ad agency Young & Rubicam back then I had a gay boss who loved to make GQ's director of ad sales squirm by asking him pointed questions about its gay readers.)
Over the past 25 years entertainers and sports stars, both male and female, have monopolized covers. (Tom Cruise has been on the cover seven times.) Actresses first appeared "unchaperoned" in the early 1990s (Julia Roberts being the first). By the end of the decade they were appearing regularly (3-4 issues each year), wearing less clothes and showing more cleavage - most likely in response to "laddie" magazines such as Maxim - drumming home the point that "we're not just for gay guys anymore". GQ (whose present editor-in-chief, Jim Nelson, is openly gay) was influential in transforming heterosexual men into metrosexuals.
Here are some favorite covers from the old days (1980s):
Here are some celebs in their younger and then more mature days as shown by their GQ covers. First, Robert DeNiro in 1991 and 2007, and then Jeff Bridges in 1986 and 2010.
And the debonair Sean Connery in 1966 and 1989; Cary Grant in 1962 and 1986.
The magazine now has a metrosexual vibe throughout its pages and serves the 21st century interests of both gay and straight men fairly well. In closing, here are some "eye candy" covers from the past 20 years:
To review all of GQ's covers between 1957-2007: http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/gq