Avian feathers are a complex evolutionary novelty characterized by structural diversity and hierarchical development. Here, I propose a functionally neutral model of the origin and evolutionary diversification of bird feathers based on the hierarchical details of feather development. I propose that feathers originated with the evolution of the first feather follicle-a cylindrical epidermal invagination around the base of a dermal papilla. A transition series of follicle and feather morphologies is hypothesized to have evolved through a series of stages of increasing complexity in follicle structure and follicular developmental mechanisms. Follicular evolution proceeded with the origin of the undifferentiated collar (stage I), barb ridges (stage II), helical displacement of barb ridges, barbule plates, and the new barb locus (stage III), differentiation of pennulae of distal and proximal barbules (stage IV), and diversification of barbule structure and the new barb locus position (stage V). The model predicts that the first feather was an undifferentiated cylinder (stage I), which was followed by a tuft of unbranched barbs (stage II). Subsequently, with the origin of the rachis and barbules, the bipinnate feather evolved (stage III), followed then by the pennaceous feather with a closed vane (stage IV) and other structural diversity (stages Va-f). The model is used to evaluate the developmental plausibility of proposed functional theories of the origin of feathers. Early feathers (stages I, II) could have functioned in communication, defense, thermal insulation, or water repellency. Feathers could not have had an aerodynamic function until after bipinnate, closed pennaceous feathers (stage IV) had evolved. The morphology of the integumental structures of the coelurisaurian theropod dinosaurs Sinosauropteryx and Beipiaosaurus are congruent with the model's predictions of the form of early feathers (stage I or II). Additional research is required to examine whether these fossil integumental structures developed from follicles and are homologous with avian feathers. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 285:291-306, 1999. Copyright 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.