It is well established that the expression of many ornamental traits is dependent on the current condition of the bearer. However, conditions experienced in early life are also known to be important for an individual's subsequent fitness and therefore, directly or indirectly, for the fitness of their mate. Specifically, a recent hypothesis suggests that sexually selected traits might be sensitive to conditions experienced during early-life development and thereby function as honest indicators of developmental history. Whether this applies to colourful male plumage, however, is largely unknown. We tested this idea with a field experiment by manipulating neonatal nutrition in a sexually dichromatic passerine, the hihi (Notymystis cincta). We found that carotenoid supplementation increased nestling plasma carotenoid concentration, which was in turn correlated with increased yellow saturation in male breeding plumage after moulting. We also found that the post-moult luminance (lightness) of the white ear-tufts tended to be reduced in males that had received an all-round nutritional supplement as nestlings. Black breeding plumage was not affected by neonatal nutritional treatment. Although the mechanisms that generate colourful plumage are evidently diverse, our results show that at least some parts of this display are accurate indicators of environmental conditions during development.