One of the most striking examples of plant hairs is the single-celled epidermal seed trichome of cultivated cotton. The developmental morphology of these commercial "fibers" has been well-characterized in Gossypium hirsutum, but little is known about the pattern and tempo of fiber development in wild Gossypium species, all of which have short, agronomically inferior fiber. To identify developmental differences that account for variation in fiber length, and to place these differences in a phylogenetic context, we conducted SEM studies of ovules at and near the time of flowering, and generated growth curves for cultivated and wild diploid and tetraploid species. Trichome initiation was found to be similar in all taxa, with few notable differences in trichome density or early growth. Developmental profiles of the fibers of most wild species are similar, with fiber elongation terminating at about two weeks post-anthesis. In contrast, growth is extended to three weeks in the A- and F-genome diploids. This prolonged elongation period is diagnosed as a key evolutionary event in the origin of long fiber. A second evolutionary innovation is that absolute growth rate is higher in species with long fibers. Domestication of species is associated with a further prolongation of elongation at both the diploid and allopolyploid levels, suggesting the effects of parallel artificial selection. Comparative analysis of fiber growth curves lends developmental support to previous quantitative genetic suggestions that genes for fiber "improvement" in tetraploid cotton were contributed by the agronomically inferior D-genome diploid parent.