A hierarchical development of cortical areas was suggested over a century ago, but the diversity and complexity of cortical hierarchy properties have so far prevented a formal demonstration. The aim of this review is to clarify the similarities and differences in the developmental processes underlying cortical development of primary and higher-order areas. We start by recapitulating the historical and recent advances underlying the biological principle of cortical hierarchy in adults. We then revisit the arguments for a hierarchical maturation of cortical areas, and further integrate the principles of cortical areas specification during embryonic and postnatal development. We highlight how the dramatic expansion in cortical size might have contributed to the increased number of association areas sustaining cognitive complexification in evolution. Finally, we summarize the recent observations of an alteration of cortical hierarchy in neuropsychiatric disorders and discuss their potential developmental origins.