Rapid colour change is a remarkable natural phenomenon that has evolved in several vertebrate and invertebrate lineages. The two principal explanations for the evolution of this adaptive strategy are (1) natural selection for crypsis (camouflage) against a range of different backgrounds and (2) selection for conspicuous social signals that maximise detectability to conspecifics, yet minimise exposure to predators because they are only briefly displayed. Here we show that evolutionary shifts in capacity for colour change in southern African dwarf chameleons (Bradypodion spp.) are associated with increasingly conspicuous signals used in male contests and courtship. To the chameleon visual system, species showing the most dramatic colour change display social signals that contrast most against the environmental background and amongst adjacent body regions. We found no evidence for the crypsis hypothesis, a finding reinforced by visual models of how both chameleons and their avian predators perceive chameleon colour variation. Instead, our results suggest that selection for conspicuous social signals drives the evolution of colour change in this system, supporting the view that transitory display traits should be under strong selection for signal detectability.