African cichlid fishes have undergone outbursts of explosive speciation in several lakes, accompanied by rapid radiations in coloration and ecology. Little is known about the evolutionary forces that triggered these events but a hypothesis, published by Wallace Dominey in 1984, has figured prominently. It states that the evolution of colour patterns is driven by sexual selection and that these colour patterns are important in interspecific mate choice, a combination which holds the potential for rapid speciation. Here we present phylogenetic analyses that describe major events in colour evolution and test predictions yielded by Dominey's hypothesis. We assembled information on stripe patterns and the presence or absence of nuptial coloration from more than 700 cichlid species representing more than 90 taxa for which molecular phylogenetic hypotheses were available. We show that sexual selection is most likely the selection force that made male nuptial coloration arise and evolve quickly. In contrast, stripe patterns, though phylogenetically not conserved either, are constrained ecologically. The evolution of vertical bar patterns is associated with structurally complex habitats, such as rocky substrates or vegetation. The evolution of a horizontal stripe is associated with a piscivorous feeding mode. Horizontal stripes are also associated with shoaling behaviour. Strength of sexual selection, measured in terms of the mating system (weak in monogamous, strong in promiscuous species), has no detectable effects on stripe pattern evolution. In promiscuous species the frequency of difference between sister species in nuptial hue is higher than in pair bonding and harem forming species, but the frequency of difference in stripe pattern is lower. We argue that differences between the two components of coloration in their exposure to natural selection explain their very different evolutionary behaviour. Finally, we suggest that habitat-mediated selection upon chromomotor flexibility, a special form of phenotypic plasticity found in the river-dwelling outgroups of the lake-dwelling cichlids, explains the rapid and recurrent ecology-associated radiation of stripe patterns in lake environments, a new hypothesis that yields experimentally testable predictions.