Structurally generated colours are at least as commonplace and varied components of animal signals as pigment colours, yet we know far less about the former, both in terms of the patterns and phenotypic variation and of their underlying correlates and causes. Many butterflies exhibit bright and iridescent colour signals that arise from a characteristic 'ridge-lamellar' scale surface nanoarchitecture. Although there are multiple axes of functional variation in these traits, few have been investigated. Here we present evidence that sexual dimorphism in the expression of a sexually homologous ridge-lamellar trait (iridescent ultraviolet) is mediated by sex differences in the density of lamellar-bearing scale ridges. This trait - ridge density - has also been causally related to iridescent signal variation in other coliadines (e.g. C. eurytheme), which suggests that it may offer a common basis to both intra- and intersexual differences in ultraviolet wing reflectance among these butterflies.