I think that material culture has two important interpretative uses. 1) Strategic. As anyone who has been on one of Jim Ogden's staff rides at Chick-Chatt can attest, the materiel of the Confederate soldier is a window into the political economy of the Confederacy, Chattanooga being the gateway into the industrial heartland of the Confederacy. A Johnny writing home about the abundance of goods - and, yes, that happens despite mythology - reveals the extent of the (to quote The Ogden) "Confederate military-industrial complex."
2) Social. What do clothes say about the man? What prewar associations did soldiers make between cloth and status? Is the fact that the Confederacy resorts to the cotton-wool blended jean cloth vice the all-wool uniforms of regulation (and their U.S. counterparts) significant? I think it is, particularly with this army emerging from a southern slave society. How do Confederate soldiers, particularly those from elite backgrounds, react when they are issued uniforms of jean cloth? Is it degrading to wear the material often associated with "jeans wearers," a term antedating "redneck" and "hillbilly"? Is it more degrading when, after hauling off large quantities of jeans from the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, slaveowning Confederates are issued suits of the same goods marketed as "negro cloth" before the war?
This is, also, something I've been playing around with recently. I mentioned a while back poking around on a project on the relationship of the 5th Ky. Inf. to the rest of the Orphan Brigade. That issue of interpreting material culture, using it for more than its purely descriptive, "wonder what it was like..." value. In a paper I'm prepping for the Appalachain Studies Association's meeting in the Spring in Dahlonega, I bring out Kentucky Confederates' association of cloth and class. One brief illustrative point from my paper, my take on an account of the 5th Ky. joining the rest of the Brigade, which by that time was uniformly uniformed in what is now known as the "Columbus Depot" jacket.
"'Say, there backwoods, bawled one [Orphan], 'any more butternut jeans where you
came from?' And such attacks came quick and fast." Such attacks, of
course, associated both class - jeans coats - and space - the backwoods - with
the men of the Fifth Kentucky and as a consequence with the mountains as a whole
without regard to material evidence of the Fifth's actual range of sartorial
Lee, if I remember correctly, has found some similar evidence of disdain for rough jeans from his South Carolinians. Any more we're aware of?