Follicular dendritic cells (FDCs) are essential for high-affinity antibody production and for the development of B cell memory. Historically, FDCs have been characterized as 'accessory' cells that passively support germinal centre (GC) responses. However, recent observations suggest that FDCs actively shape humoral immunity. In this Review, we discuss recent findings concerning the antigen acquisition and retention functions of FDCs, and relevant implications for protective immunity. Furthermore, we describe the roles of FDCs within GCs in secondary lymphoid organs and discuss FDC development within this dynamic environment. Finally, we discuss how a better understanding of FDCs could facilitate the design of next-generation vaccines.