Football as fine art — just look at these amazing shirts

    With football fever raging in the land, Britain’s least likely contemporary art space, the Oof Gallery, has become a must-go destination. The Oof Gallery is unlikely because it is located inside Tottenham Hotspur’s football stadium in north London. Worse than that, it is only accessible through the club shop. Anyone visiting the Oof needs first to run the gauntlet of home kits, away kits, Tottenham water bottles and pictures of Son Heung-min scoring a lucky goal.

    When I went, the pop star Pink was also playing an out-of-season gig that night, so the shop was full of Pink’s pink merchandise clashing horribly with the sedate blue and white of Tottenham. Pink was winning. Spurs were getting in touch with their feminine side.

    All this was appropriate because the Oof Gallery’s new show is dedicated whimsically and interestingly to football shirts. Not the obscenely expensive Tottenham home shirts on sale at the shop — £125! — but artistic football shirts, through the ages, on which assorted social and cultural contests have blazed. If you think a football shirt is just a football shirt, the Oof Gallery will make you think again.

    But then the bright sparks of capitalism realised that by tinkering with those colours, changing them mildly from season to season, they could charge £125 for a home kit and rake in mountains of annual lolly. Add an away shirt, and another for girls, and another for kids, and a second away shirt, and you have a hugely profitable revenue stream where once there was a rousing tribal colour.

    The Oof show doesn’t go deeply into that story because it is more concerned with the design freedoms that followed. Once a football shirt was no longer a proper football shirt it was free to become all manner of other things: fashion statement, cultural signifier, identity marker, artistic location. In the flickering half-light of today’s culture, the football shirt has become a creative battleground.

    The earliest example on show here dates from 1923. Designed by the Russian constructivist Varvara Stepanova, the black, white and yellow footballing onesie — shirt and shorts combined in a single garment — was a Bolshevik sports outfit with ambitions to change the world.

    Stepanova began as a fine artist. But by the 1920s her revolutionary fervour was being channelled into creating sportodezhda, futuristic unisex sports clothing. In Stepanova’s hands, the football shirt became an attack on bourgeois values. The sportodezhda on show here, with its striking black diagonals and unexpected yellow stripes, would still look ahead of its time if Harry Kane were flapping about in it at the Euros.

    Having retreated for a moment into the football shirt’s revolutionary past, the Oof show switches play immediately and charges upfield to more recent times and the various ways in which the football shirt has been artistically appropriated by tribes other than football’s.

    Walthamstow FC, who play in the Isthmian League North, have a kit based on the famous flowery wallpaper designed by William Morris, Walthamstow local and determined social campaigner. Ajax, the most celebrated team in the Netherlands, have a bootleg away kit featuring details from Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night.

    Adapting existing examples of art to the football kit turns out to be the most predictable of the many approaches investigated by the Oof. Crowded into the main gallery are scores of madcap shirts with myriad different ambitions.

    A particularly spooky one by Rachel Wojcicka, made from latex and fake hair, is billed as a tribute to the women’s football team and their preference for tying their hair back in a ponytail. In her tribute, Wojcicka has created the shirt number out of David Seaman style tresses and embroidered the neckline in golden locks. Apparently, the number two was the number associated with femininity by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras.

    JJ Guest, mindful of the omerta that prevails in the changing room about homosexuality, gives us a shirt stitched in such a way that the back will always ride up. It’s a spiky sartorial riposte to the slur “shirt-lifter” that continues to pop up in the vocabulary of the common-or-garden homophobe.

    We’re watching the football shirt’s transformation from a piece of practical sportswear to a universal canvas for the modern imagination. Having infiltrated society on so many levels away from the football field — as exemplified by Émile-Samory Fofana’s photographs of fashionable west Africans in traditional robes decorated with the colours of famous European football teams — the football shirt’s most potent quality continues to be its heraldic clout: the sense that whatever it announces is announced in the colours of the tribe.

    Thus Rachel Maclean gives us a pair of self-portraits produced during the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence. In one, she’s wearing a patched up Celtic shirt. In the other, a patched up Rangers shirt. In both, she’s praying to a thistle god above to unite the warring football factions in a shared goal. Not!

    It’s a fun show. There has never been a better time to mount it. Come on, you wide-ranging, multidirectional, multidisciplinary creatives!

    Tops Off: A Century of Football Shirt Art is at the Oof Gallery, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London N17, to Sep 28