An important factor in the transition from an open to a closed circulatory system was a change in vessel wall structure and composition that enabled the large arteries to store and release energy during the cardiac cycle. The component of the arterial wall in vertebrates that accounts for these properties is the elastic fiber network organized by medial smooth muscle. Beginning with the onset of pulsatile blood flow in the developing aorta, smooth muscle cells in the vessel wall produce a complex extracellular matrix (ECM) that will ultimately define the mechanical properties that are critical for proper function of the adult vascular system. This review discusses the structural ECM proteins in the vertebrate aortic wall and will explore how the choice of ECM components has changed through evolution as the cardiovascular system became more advanced and pulse pressure increased. By correlating vessel mechanics with physiological blood pressure across animal species and in mice with altered vessel compliance, we show that cardiac and vascular development are physiologically coupled, and we provide evidence for a universal elastic modulus that controls the parameters of ECM deposition in vessel wall development. We also discuss mechanical models that can be used to design better tissue-engineered vessels and to test the efficacy of clinical treatments.