The Plateau–Rayleigh instability of a liquid column underlies a variety of fascinating phenomena that can be observed in everyday life. In contrast to the case of a free liquid cylinder, describing the evolution of a liquid layer on a solid fibre requires consideration of the solid–liquid interface. Here we revisit the Plateau–Rayleigh instability of a liquid coating a fibre by varying the hydrodynamic boundary condition at the fibre–liquid interface, from no slip to slip. Although the wavelength is not sensitive to the solid–liquid interface, we find that the growth rate of the undulations strongly depends on the hydrodynamic boundary condition. The experiments are in excellent agreement with a new thin-film theory incorporating slip, thus providing an original, quantitative and robust tool to measure slip lengths.