In mammals, the levels of X-linked gene products in males and females are equalised by the silencing, early in development, of most of the genes on one of the two female X chromosomes. Once established, the silent state is stable from one cell generation to the next. In eutherian mammals, the inactive X chromosome (Xi) differs from its active homologue (Xa) in a number of ways, including increased methylation of selected CpGs, replication late in S-phase, expression of the Xist gene with binding of Xist RNA and underacetylation of core histones. The latter is a common property of genetically inactive chromatin but, in the case of Xi, it is not clear whether it is an integral part of the silencing process or simply a consequence of some other property of Xi, such as late replication. The present review describes two approaches that address this problem. The first shows that Xi in marsupial mammals also contains underacetylated H4, even though its properties differ widely from those of the eutherian Xi. The continued presence of histone underacetylation on Xi in these evolutionarily distant mammals argues for its fundamental importance. The second approach uses mouse embryonic stem cells and places H4 deacetylation in a sequence of events leading to complete X inactivation. The results argue that histone underacetylation plays a role in the stabilisation of the inactive state, rather than in its initiation.